Sunday, June 26, 2016

Foxes, pipelines, and songs

6 Pentecost, June 26, 2016 1 Kings 19: 15-16, 19-21
Emmanuel Church Boston Galatians 5: 1, 13-25
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling Luke 9: 51-62

In the name of the One who creates, carries, and sings. Amen.

I had the great joy to be with your rector, Pam Werntz, and your vestry leaders for their vestry retreat last month. We spent time together Friday evening and most of Saturday at St. Joseph’s retreat center in Cohasset. The retreat center is perched upon rocks, overlooks the ocean, and has a horseshoe shaped beach abutting the property.
There were chairs everywhere: inside the house, outside on the porch, and scattered all over the lawn. Seabreezes cooled our bodies, calmed our souls, and enlivened our spirits. It’s hard to work under such difficult circumstances. And yet, we were there to work. Our goals were twofold: to get to know each other better and to work on leadership development at Emmanuel Church.
Our theme for the retreat was music: how do we sing the song of God’s love from one generation to the next? We talked about leadership qualities, and what models we have in our religious, political, and business environments.   In your opinion, what makes a good leader?
Here’s some of what your vestry leaders said:
  1. It’s a two-way street; a mutual, and symbiotic relationship between leaders and followers.

  1. A leader taps into the desires of others and draws them out.

  1. Leaders inspire people through their values, love, self-sacrifice, generosity, and mercy.

  1. They have a curiosity about people & the world.

  1. They have clarity of vision and purpose.

  1. They transcend their own character flaws and fears.

  1. They are prepared, show up, and meet followers right where they are.

  1. They keep their judgment of others in check, and can reel in their own pride, temper, and beliefs in order to listen to others in an accessible and open way.

  1. They can articulate a vision that may not be shared by the whole group but provides an impetus for action.

In my opinion, leadership that does not change is not good leadership. Nor is leadership that is not shared with others, good leadership either. To be clear, leaders may hold identifiable positions in an organization, which give them power and authority, but there are plenty of leaders that aren’t as easily identified. And all leaders are not good.
For example, at Emmanuel Church you have a rector, a deacon, and vestry members who share the leadership of this parish by virtue of their positions. They are leaders who have been elected by you or appointed by the bishop to use their various gifts to sustain Christ’s Church and spread the good news of Jesus Christ.
In today’s religious climate, by virtue of your presence here today, I would argue that you also are a leader. There are leaders in these pews right now who are nascent leaders, who are listening, and learning, and preparing to step into the shoes of someone else, somewhere, someday. Grace Nelson Morrison is one of these nascent leaders. And there are people here who may never hold an office with a title, but lead by their example. They welcome the stranger, care for the sick, and encourage the faint-hearted. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul says leaders have these qualities: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.
Healthy leadership is like a baton pipeline. At the vestry retreat, I asked your leaders to imagine themselves as an orchestra, led by a Conductor, who is holding a baton. I asked them, “Were they receiving the baton, carrying the baton, or in the process of passing the baton of leadership to someone else?” Today’s lessons from 2 Kings and Luke can teach us about this baton pipeline.
Take the 1st lesson for example. Elijah is trying to pass the baton to Elisha but he wants to avoid the tension of that transition. He wants to sneak off into the night. Twice he says to Elisha, “Stay here, while I go there.” But Elisha is not so easily shaken loose; and so he insists that he wants to walk alongside Elijah for awhile in order to learn from him. Elijah then asks, “What can I do for you before I go? What do you need from me? How can I help you carry the mantle of my leadership after I’m gone?” They both face the challenges of leadership transition head-on.
Jesus knows this too, as he prepares to leave his disciples, with his face set for Jerusalem. As a leader, Jesus sent messengers ahead of him to prepare the way; however, in today’s gospel, the Samaritans refused to receive the baton; and James and John wanted to “command fire to come down from heaven and consume them.” But Jesus rebuked them.
While Jesus does not condemn or judge those who say “no”,  or “not yet”, he also challenges them. Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, said Jesus, but the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. Being a leader involves sacrificing some of our freedom, and while “Christ has set us free,” it also begs the question, freedom for what? St. Paul answers in his letter to the Galatians, “For you were called to freedom brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servants to one another.” South African freedom hero Nelson Mandela said: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
Leadership means that we are part of the baton pipeline from generation to generation. As Christians, “we have built the Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.” As leaders and followers of Jesus, as people in the Jesus movement, we can receive, carry, and pass the song of God’s love to others; or we can picket the work of the pipeline, refusing to accept our part. Leadership means sacrificing some of our time, talents, and treasure in order to sustain Christ’s Church right now. It means knowing that Christ is here with us, and that the Spirit of God is moving among us.
As Christians, our Conductor is God, the baton is Jesus, the orchestra is you, and the song of the Spirit is Love. We’re in this together. We are all leaders in this Church as followers of Jesus Christ. In baptism, by water and the spirit, we receive the song of God’s love individually, and we sing the song of God’s love together. We are part of the Christian pipeline, passing Jesus along to others as part of our covenant with God. But Jesus warned his followers “not to look back” and hang on to the dead, or linger with farewells too long. “Go,” he said. “Proclaim the kingdom of God.”
This leadership baton has been received, carried, and passed from one generation to the next. This is what Elijah did with Elisha. This is what Jesus did with his disciples. This is what St. Paul did with those in the early church. And this is what you are doing here at Emmanuel.
How do we sing the song of God’s love from one generation to the next? As members of God’s orchestra, receive the baton of Jesus, carry it, and keep passing it along to others. You, my friends, are part of the Christian pipeline! And today we welcome Grace Nelson Morrison into this sacred work.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Death threats and Demons

5 Pentecost, June 19, 2016 1 Kings 19:1-4 (5-7), 8-15a
St. Peter’s Cambridge Psalms 42 and 43, Galatians 3: 23-29
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling Luke 8: 26-39

Send out your light and your truth that they may lead us and bring us to your holy hill and dwelling. Amen.

It’s great to be here at St. Peter’s this morning and I’m grateful to your rector Christian for his invitation. My husband Paul and I moved to East Cambridge last year for many reasons, one being that I felt called to serve God as a missionary, evangelist, and free agent in Christ. I love parish ministry, and served happily for 16 years in Connecticut, but I felt called to serve God in new and various ways, and in a different location. Unintentionally, I entered a time of wilderness for three years, until I found myself here in the promised land of Cambridge. Currently, I’m happily involved in many ministries in our diocese, including being a supply priest for my more settled colleagues.
Our world can be a threatening and scary place. Take for instance, today’s lesson from 1st Kings. Through the words of a messenger, Jezebel threatens Elijah, saying “I will kill you just as you have killed my prophets. And I will kill you tomorrow.” I ask you, how many death threats have we heard these days? In our schools, in our churches, in our theaters, and now last week in a nightclub in Florida. How many of these death threats come without warning, striking terror into our hearts?
Jezebel worshipped the pagan god called Ba’al and Elijah had recently proven to her that his God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was more powerful. He accused his own people of being unfaithful, claiming that they had forsaken God’s covenant, thrown down God’s altars, and even killed some of their own prophets. Elijah confessed that he had been “very zealous for the Lord.”  And so he killed the Ba’al prophets in order to show not only Jezebel but also his own people that his God was the only God worth worshipping. It was a power struggle that ended in violence and multiple deaths.
These are wilderness times. When someone kills our people, don’t we also want revenge? Just as Jezebel threatened Elijah, don’t we want to do the same? The fight between Jezebel and Elijah is a fight that never ends. It continues today between Jews and Palestinians, between political parties and religious leaders, and between anyone who interprets life or God differently from us. The fight is as old as Cain and Abel and as new as Donald and Hilary. We are like Elijah, who says to God, “I am no better than my ancestors.”
Temptations abound in the wilderness. In the face of direct and immediate threats, don’t we also want to pick up our bags and flee, as Elijah did? We flee for self-protection. We flee because we are afraid. We flee because we feel vulnerable, alone, and misunderstood. We find a cave in which to hide until the immediate danger has passed, emotions have cooled, and the threats hopefully have been forgotten. We want to preserve life.
There’s a lot of wilderness in today’s lessons from scripture. They remind me of the temptations that the Israelites faced as they wandered towards Palestine. In response to the threats in their lives, and a promised land not yet realized, they worshipped a golden calf and wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt. They remind me of Jesus’ 40 days and nights in the wilderness, when he was tempted by demons to show his power, to trust in his own strength, and even to tempt God. They remind me that Elijah, Jesus, and all of our ancestors spent a lot of time in the wilderness.
Temptations multiply when we’re afraid, when we feel that our lives or our livelihoods are being threatened, and when we’ve lost people and things that we cherish. Our demons are both internal and external; Elijah fled because, in addition to the external threats from Jezebel, he questioned his own ability to lead. In the face of chaos and conflict, we get confused; we lack clarity about who we are, how to proceed, and how we should respond. We often struggle with loneliness, shame, and grief. And yet, as Elijah and the man with demons discovered, the wilderness is also a time for drawing closer to God.
Our souls are disquieted and heavy when we’re in the wilderness. Like Elijah, we want to die, or kill someone else. In our solitary cry to God, we ask, “Why have you forgotten me, while my bones are being broken and my enemies mock me?” Like the demons who fall at Jesus’ feet, we beg God not to torment us any more. We pray that God will defend us and deliver us from “those” deceitful and wicked people. Or deliver us from ourselves.
Our egos are good things. They protect us from very real threats; but EGO can also be an acronym for “easing God out.” That is, all too often, we ease God out of the center of our lives, and put ourselves there instead. We want control, to prove that we are right, and they are wrong. We move our seats to the front of the airplanes, from being a passenger or a flight attendant to becoming the pilot, and then we fly our planes away as fast as we can, or drop our bombs, killing innocents and enemies alike. In these desperate times, when we wonder where God is, we forget that it was we who had moved away.
As we know from scripture, as we know from history, and as we know from today’s current realities, being driven by passion, dogma, or fear can cause great harm. Our Church, our nation, and our world are in these wilderness times; but being in the wilderness is part of our landscape, and while temptations abound, it can also be a place for restoration and renewal. There, God will heal us. There, God will provide for us, saying, “here is some bread. Over there is a sip of water.”
Human and divine forces are extremely powerful; however, unlike others, God’s forces are only for the good. Natural forces, like tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes can cause great damage, and yet they can also be forces for good as well. They can carry us to places we’ve never imagined: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. In wilderness times, we can remember that God is everywhere, even in  the silence, and that all of us are beloved children of God, uniquely and marvelously made. As St. Paul said in his letter to the Galatians, “we are all part of Abraham’s offspring, and heirs according to God’s promise.”
We can choose how we respond to threats. We can flee in fear, or we can stand firm in our faith. We can strike terror into the hearts of others or we can become messengers of God’s love. We can react with revenge, or we can find courage to change the things that we can. Finding a cave for prayer, and asking for God’s guidance, is a good first step in the right direction.  
But we can’t stay in our caves forever; and so eventually God will ask us again, “What are you doing here?” Then God will send us back out, to face those death threats, to face our demons, and to respond to our challenges with renewed spirits, and disciplined responses. “Go, and get others to help you,” God tells Elijah. “Return to your home,” Jesus said to the man with the demons, “and declare how much God has done for you.” We must return to the places from which we have come, sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, sometimes mentally, but always spiritually.
I’ve discovered that God “never fails to help and govern those whom God has set upon the sure foundation of God’s loving-kindness.” Emerging from our caves of isolation, in solidarity with others, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can recreate God’s beloved community together.

Yes, demons and death threats are Legion. They can strike terror into our hearts or they can become pathways to God’s heart. “The cave that you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek,” says Joseph Campbell. We are here in that cave today, knowing that death is no longer a threat. Even our demons fear the power of Jesus. Our treasure lies in the empty tomb; and our victory is assured. So put your trust in God, “who is our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.” Amen.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Addictions, Truth-telling, and Spirituality

4 Pentecost, June 12, 2016 1 Kings 21: 1-21a
Christ Church, Needham Galatians 2: 15-21
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling Luke 7: 36-8:3

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.

According to an article in the LA Times, “There’s a lot more going on at colleges these days than just studying. On any given day, 1.2 million students are drinking alcohol and more than 703,000 are using marijuana.” David Dean, a behavioral research scientist, who specializes in adolescent and young adult health, reports that “There's still a great deal of neurophysiological development that's going on in the early 20s. What we know is that using substances like alcohol, marijuana and illicit drugs can affect both short-term and long-term health and behavior.” (end quote)

Boston and its suburbs are known for many things, not least being a hub for education and health care. It’s also a hotspot for the opiate epidemic. In our diocese, I’ve repeatedly heard this question, “What can we do about this crisis in our state? Too many of our young people are dying.”

The Massachusetts Council of Churches has been offering a workshop called “Spirituality and Addiction” which your rector, Nick, and I attended a few weeks ago. Nick felt a certain responsibility to educate himself in order to help you. As a priest who serves in this diocese in many capacities, I wanted to be there as well. You see “spirituality and addiction” is one of the spokes in my wheelhouse. It is one of the colors of my mosaic ministries. It is one of the scars from my own crucifixion. And praise God, it is one of the resurrection stories that I’ve lived to tell.

My husband, Paul, is in long-term recovery (26 years to be exact) for the disease of alcoholism. With permission, I tell parts of his story. His Dad was an orthopedic surgeon and his Mom was a nurse. Like most parents, they had high hopes for their 1st born child. Unfortunately, Paul had a learning disability and ADHD that interfered with his school work at an early age. Back in the day, teaching methods weren’t as developed as they are now. Let’s just say that everyone who tried to help actually caused greater damage.

I met Paul my junior year of college when I was on exchange from an all women’s college. I was attracted to him for many reasons, one of which was his compelling childhood story. Here he was, at a highly-regarded New England liberal arts school, part of the football team, a member of a fraternity, and he had a wonderful family who lived close by. Drinking was part of the fun at college. Smoking weed was too. There were many pills that were popped; and yet we were all clueless about the dangers and the underbelly of all these drugs.

Paul and I got married right after we graduated from our respective colleges. Frankly, we married for the wrong reasons. His parents loved my academic credentials, even if I couldn’t bake cookies. I was afraid to “set off” on my own and Paul presented a great package of adventure and family support. He thought he was marrying Cinderella and the fairy tale would last forever. So did I.

At this workshop on “spirituality and addiction” Nick and I learned that there are signs, symptoms, family roles, and certain behaviors that are universal.  “Don’t talk, don’t feel, and don’t trust. What happens in the family stays in the family.” Denial, labels, and fear can get in the way of asking for help. Who wants to self-identify as an alcoholic or a drug addict? What parent wants to admit that their child may becoming one? What spouse or parent endures bad behaviors for too long, because they want to keep the family together, or believe it’s just a phase, or a temporary release from stress, or something that I did wrong, or that everyone else is doing? Addiction is a cunning, baffling, and pernicious disease that still carries a lot of baggage and shame, and so we avoid facing the truth.

Addictions are slick. We’re not sure if it’s an addiction or just typical adolescent behavior. We’re confused by the excuses we hear, and the stories they tell. We can easily deny the truth, because quite frankly, we all understand. We all have pain in one form or another. We all self-medicate. We just choose what we use, how much we use, and how often we use it.  However, for some people, there comes a tipping point, a trigger sets off in the brain, and keeps saying “Give me more.” Rather than using labels, one counselor suggests, “If it’s causing problems in your life, then it’s a problem.”

Our choices are important; they can lead the way to full and abundant life or they can pave the road to destruction. They can build up relationships or break them down. Although we are clear that chemical dependency is a brain disease, there are still some moral responsibilities that we all share. We can tell the truth. We can choose to face our problems, take responsibility for them, and seek solutions together. We can let go and let God.

I knew that Paul had a problem with his drinking pretty soon into our marriage. But we kept moving, we kept partying as young adults, and working our ways up into the world. When we finally settled in Connecticut almost 10 years into our marriage, we joined a church and found some great friends; at that time we had two children under the age of three. Unfortunately, the disease of alcoholism and drug addiction is progressive. The elevator is going down, and the bottom floor is really ugly; it can even be fatal. Fortunately, there are also ways to get off and to get help.

A frequent refrain today is that no one cared about the opiate epidemic until white people started dying. The truth is, people with privileges and resources can hide their fear, their shame, and their illnesses for longer periods of time. We can hide behind our white picket fences, which keep us protected from the truth and isolated from others. This is called the golden ghetto.

King Ahab lived in a golden ghetto. As king of the people of Israel he was powerful, petulant, and privileged. He worked hard, played hard, and took what he wanted. After all he was entitled to it as the king. And when he couldn’t get what he wanted, he was resentful and pouted. Queen Jezebel enabled him. She affirmed his entitlement, used deception, and manipulated others which eventually led to the murder of Naboth. Telling lies, keeping secrets, manipulation, and public posturing are part of the way our human families operate, but they are especially prevalent in the disease of addictions.

Drug and alcohol experimentation begins at an early age and is getting earlier. Addiction can come harmlessly enough and can be sustained easily enough through family, friends, and medical professionals who are uneducated, in denial, and unwilling to speak the truth. We swim in an addictive culture.

Paul began his journey at age 12 when he helped himself to some pills in his parents’ medicine cabinet. And then as a sophomore in high school, while on vacation in Germany, his parents offered him a beer. To this day, he remembers how he felt. His world suddenly became manageable and free from anxiety. Then in college, it was “game on.” Later in his life, alcohol became his drug of choice to help ease the stress of business, his fear of failure, the difficulties of marriage and parenthood, and the pain of memories.

There are new drugs available to treat overdoses and to help people with their physical cravings. Antidotes also include truth-telling. Elijah confronted king Ahab in Naboth’s vineyard, when he asked him, “Have you killed and also taken possession?” Jesus confronted the Pharisees by stating the truth about how he had been treated. “I entered your house, and you gave me no water. You gave me no kiss. You did not anoint my head with oil.”

Now the truth is, we all make mistakes. We are all sinners, guilty for what we have done and for what we have left undone; and so confession and repentance are part of our salvation journey. It's also called the 4th and 5th steps. When we change our behavior, it’s called making amends. This is what the woman was doing at the feet of Jesus. And so there is an antidote readily available to all of us through truth-telling, prayer, making amends, and acts of service.

My husband Paul likes to tell people that the addict or alcoholic is like a grenade, and there are 34 million of them in our country. But Paul reminds people that family members receive the shrapnel, and that there are 120 million of us,  who are equally wounded by this disease. To be clear, addiction is a disease that is physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. And the disease of addiction is as toxic to the soul as it is to the liver and the brain.” We all need help getting out of the ghetto.

No ditch is too low for God. Fortunately, God’s reach and power is far greater than ours. Each of us is made in the good image of our Creator, and Jesus has forgiven our sins. As St. Paul said in his letter to the Galatians, we are saved by grace, and this amazing grace is freely given and undeserved. We have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer we who live, but it is Christ who lives within us. Happy are they whose transgressions have been forgiven.

It’s been 42 years of marriage for Paul and me, living one day at a time and one step at a time. If you, a family member, or a friend are struggling with this deadly disease, please ask for help. It’s always a good first step.