12 Steps: Grace and Surrender Psalm 27 March 17, 2019 Rev. Kristin Stoneking Epworth United Methodist Church, Berkeley, CA
The early Methodist societies and class meetings were composed of 8 to 10 or 12 people, who gathered together each week to pray together, study the scriptures, encourage each other and watch over each other in love. In writing down the nature and design of these groups, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, laid down three general rules: do no harm, do all the good you can and stay in love with God. If you are part of a Lenten small group, you’ve begun to focus with a group of friends in faith on these general rules and consider each week how you are doing no harm, doing all the good you can and staying in love with God.
The ethos of the early societies, and the binding thread of all Methodist connecitonalism, is a belief in grace, that no matter how holy we are or how depraved, we all always in need God’s grace. We are, in the words of the hymnist, daily constrained as great debtors to grace. We never don’t need it. But the beauty is that what we need is ever available. In fact grace is more than ever available. God’s grace seeks us out, finds us in our lostness and overwhelms us with a love so deep and unconditional that we have no choice but to turn toward it.
This belief in grace is what allowed the early societies to have the humility to be honest with each other about their own failings and dreams. Grace grouned their hope and fueld their courage. There was no expectation that they wouldn’t, almost all of the time, be falling short. The whole program started not in their worthiness but in their unworthiness so in the beginning, as they started, there was nothing to prove. As they let go of the pretenses and shame in English society, grace was continually there to catch and buoy them, because they knew as they sought deeper holiness, they were already saved.
Through the years, this belief and trust in grace is what made the people of the true Methodist movement some of the most inspiring heroes of history. They included abolitionists who followed John Wesley’s 1739 exhortation to neither a slave nor a slaveholder be. They included early suffragettes who met at the Wesleyan Chapel for the famed Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Hall in New York. And they included leaders and foot soldiers of the civil rights movements of the 50s and 60s.
In the last three weeks since the decisions of the general conference in St. Louis that codified and strengthened enforcement and punishment for the marrying of same sex couples by our ministers or the ordaining of LGBTQ people, we’ve seen an outpouring of pain and dissent across the globe from individual Methodists and Methodist Churches, many of whom had never been involved with advocacy for lgbtq persons prior to this.
I have to say that I am both deeply heartened and not a little surprised at the broad and global expressions of devastation, because the prohibitions against preforming same sex weddings and ordaining LGBTQ folks are not new. But what is new is profound clarity that these decisions will certainly do harm. And that breaks our first rule. Do. No. Harm. And maybe even more than that, the mean-spirited legalistic language in these decisions and corrupt and condemning discourse in St. Louis signifies to us that we have moved away from being a movement that relies solely on the saving grace of God. The very soul of Methodism is at stake.
But really this is true for all of us. When we have blocked the flow of grace, and we are not relying on the saving grace of God, our lives are in jeopardy. Step 2 in the 12 steps is “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” A friend of mine who is in the program who I’ve consulted about this series has made me promise to emphasize this step. She said, “the only way we went from being addicted to being sober was through grace. We can’t give ourselves any other credit. The bridge between being absolutely lost, or as Wesley would say, “groaning for redemption” and coming to believe that there was a way out, a way to be redeemed, that that bridge is grace.
The Psalmist wrote, “The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?”
These are the words of someone who has realized their life depends on grace, someone who knows they are vulnerable and that only a power greater than themselves could restore them to sanity. Last week we talked about how it feels to be lost, and the reality that we all experience lostness. In Psalm 27, when we hear the Psalmist refer to the “enemy”, we are hearing a personification of our experience with physical illness, emotional distresses, relational breakdowns, economic stresses and spiritual crises. But through the ever pursuing, ever sheltering, ever loving grace of God, we are surrounded by a force that pulls us out of this despair, this unmanageableness, this lostness, and toward sanity and wholeness.
We believe that God’s grace is always preceding us, always trying to turn us toward good. And we also believe that we are to be agents of that grace, expressing with our own actions and intentions the way that God is trying to get through to us with unconditional love and an invitation to turn toward life.
This week was the anniversary of my mother in law, Dot’s, death and we’ve been thinking about her a lot. When my wife, Elizabeth, was with Dot just before she died, she came across a number of letters with a return address of a prison. She asked, “Mom, who is the person you were corresponding with at this correctional institute?” “Oh, that’s a young man who came to our church, he was at a low point in his life, just about to have his sentencing, and he didn’t have a lot of support.” In the letters, he shared, “I’m still trying to do my music,” and “I took a woodworking class”—details of a man trying to maintain his humanity, reaching back to an ordinary woman who had reached out to him without judgment, only love.
I shared this story as part of Dot’s memorial and after the service a woman approached me at the reception. “That was my son,” she said. “He made some poor choices, but he’s out now. He has a job and he’s getting by. Dot’s letters meant so much to him.” Dot was an agent of grace.
What’s remarkable about this was that in many ways Dot’s life could have been unmanageable. She was the mother of nine kids and resources were very thin. But she relied on grace. Her life was so full of responsibility and challenge, that she realized she had two choices: lostness or surrender. She was a regular faithful member at her church where she was head usher and served in many other ways. Some people think they are too busy to go to church. But Dot knew she was too busy not to go to church.
Step 3 is “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to God as we understood God.” Ultimately this is about surrendering, and in our culture, the way we have been taught to power through on our own will, surrendering hardly makes sense. But, as my friend has said, “It was my own will and my great ideas that got me lost in the first place.” This is the non-attachment of Buddhism, and the letting go Jesus meant when he said, ”Whoever would follow me, let that one deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”
But to be clear, surrender is not the same thing as sacrifice. Surrender is a wholly turning over to God, and acknowledging that it is only by God’s power and grace we will survive. Sacrifice is a retention of power in a way that keeps one stuck in a dysfunctional system. Sacrifice and surrender are so often confused in our faith because surrender, the giving up of the ego, can look like sacrifice, the constant doing for others. But they are not the same. Father Richard Rohr says, “You see, there is a love that sincerely seeks the spiritual good of others, [which is surrender] and there is a love that is seeking superiority, admiration, and control for itself, even and most especially by doing “good” and heroic things. Maybe we have to see it in its full-blown sick state to catch the problem. Suicide bombers are sacrificial, most resentful people are very sacrificial at one or another level, the manipulative parent is invariably sacrificial, all codependents are sacrificial, a phenomenon so common that it created its own group called Al-Anon.”
Sacrifice and surrender can both feel like dying, but here is the difference. Sacrifice is a downward spiral of resentment and unmet expectation for control and affirmation. Surrender just lets go. And perhaps most importantly, we are not called to sacrifice. We are called to follow the one who transformed the need for sacrificial religion by his own ultimate surrender. Jesus put to death sacrificial religion by offering himself, showing that unconditional love and grace will be available to us no matter what we do.
But as Rohr says, even though Jesus abolished sacrificial religion, “we went right back to it in Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant forms, because the old ego will always prefer an economy of merit and sacrifice to an economy of grace and unearned love, where we have no control.”
The good news is that we can surrender. We are assured that if we let go, instead of a free fall to our deaths, we will encounter the living God. Let us be confident in the grace that calls to us, surrounds us and that will never let us go. Let us rest in the grace that will search us out when we are lost, and convince us that we are loved unconditionally. And let us be agents of that same grace to a world that is lost and deeply in need of hope and life. Amen.