Lost (First in Series drawing from Wisdom of the 12 Steps) Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 March 10, 2019 Rev. Kristin Stoneking Epworth United Methodist Church, Berkeley, CA
In 1993 I was in seminary in Chicago and went with a friend to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It was in a two story frame house, paint not so fresh, with a big porch in a residential neighborhood. The house sat on the corner of an intersection through which one of the major north/south roads ran. This was the northside of Chicago, and one of the things I had already come to know about Chicago was that it is a very segregated city, sometimes even by block, the large divisions being around race, and the sub-divisions being around country of origin—Irish, German, Polish, Indian and religion—Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim.
What I immediately noticed upon entering the house, which was full and smelling strongly of black coffee, was that all of Chicago’s races, ethnicities and religions seemed to be present in the first floor of that house. Here I was studying to be a minister, immersed in the Bible and seeking to understand scripture and theology deeply enough to be able to compel others to seek reconciliation and a new life through following Jesus and be the church, and here in this somewhat ramshackle house, I found the body of Christ on earth.
The house was nicknamed the Sunshine House. Everyone I talked to there was convinced not only of their need for salvation but that they had been saved. It was clear that the folks I talked to were there because their lives depended on it. And I thought to myself, this is what is a challenge in the church: we are not convinced that our lives quite literally depend on following Jesus. We do not seek out the Son for our salvation. We are not convinced of our utter need to be saved from that which enslaves us. We don’t always thing of being in worship and participating in the life of the community as the food that not only satisfies our hunger but keeps us alive.
Actually the opposite is true: We act as if we have full control over our own lives or could have if we could just get this one thing to change. We act like whatever is wrong in our lives or in the world, we have the power to fix. We think we have enough will and strength to get the thing to change or make our own project happen, whatever that may be. With our great ideas, we wander into other activities that focus our attention but can be like junk food—we eat but we are not sustained in health. We think we are managing just fine. Or maybe not just fine, but we think we are managing.
But what we have demonstrated to us time and time again as we go through life is that this isn’t true. We don’t have the power to control everything or to fix everything. What’s worse, continuing to believe this draws us deeper and deeper into delusion. When this delusion is supported by a substance or behavior, and as we go deeper and deeper into it, it takes more and more of that substance or behavior to sustain it. And instead of being honest and saying this isn’t working and in fact it is stealing my life, we become addicted to that which allows us to remain in our delusion instead of facing some really painful stuff and being honest about what is.
Father Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Contemplative Action whose work is studied by many who are in recovery. He is an ecumenical teacher and theologian who draws wisdom from Buddhism and Hinduism, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. In his book Breathing Underwater, he lays out the parallels between the wisdom of the 12 steps used by Alcoholics Anonymous and many other groups, and what he refers to as the “marrow of the Gospel.” He suggests, and I would agree, that we are all addicts. Each of us is possessed by some demon over which, if we are honest, we are powerless.
Rohr has said, “Addiction is a modern name and honest description for what the biblical tradition called “sin” and medieval Christians called “passions” or “attachments”. They both recognized that serious measures or practices were needed to break us out of these illusions and entrapments: in fact the New Testament calls them in some cases, ‘exorcisms!’”
The Lenten journey is about removing those things, habits, substances, thinking, and delusions that keep us apart from God and each other. You are invited to take an honest look at what in your life creates barriers between you and those you love, or keeps you from facing something painful that must be faced, or that has made your life unmanageable. Step one is “We admitted we were powerless over an addictive substance or behavior, and that our lives had become unmanageable.” As I have prepared for this series and thought about what creates barriers between me and the ones I love and what makes my life unmanageable, I have come to the conclusion that it is the way I work—the hours, the intensity, the delusion about what I can get done, and the great difficulty I have of saying no to more.
Now I know many of us here work very long hours, and that surviving in the Bay Area is extremely challenging. But for me, as we begin this Lenten journey, I am looking at this question of how I work. I have become so habituated to a style of work that rarely leaves time for Sabbath or time each day for refueling that I do believe the only real way for me to adopt a new way of being is to admit that I am powerless over this. There is a way in which working and rarely coming up for air, rarely keeping the commandment of Sabbath has made me lost. I want to be clear that I am in no way underestimating the difference between an addiction that threatens immanent death such as one to drugs or alcohol, and one that blocks life in a more spiritual sense. But the work of Lent is to repent, to turn away from all that has made our lives unmanageable and to turn… toward God.
Many in Alcoholics Anonymous talk about an experience of hitting “rock bottom.” This is a time of abject lostness which can include physical, financial, and relational ruin and most definitely includes spiritual alienation. Sometimes it is precipitated by an event and sometimes it is just the house of cards made of delusion crumbling. Nothing works, and there is no way forward. There is nothing to do but admit to painful reality of lostness.
Rock bottom is excruciatingly painful, but it is also the moment of clarity. It is the point at which one knows that there is a problem and that only God can remedy it. St. John of the Cross, the 16th century monk who wrote one of the classics of spiritual literature, Dark Night of the Soul, described how our gods must die until we find the true God. He wrote, ““The soul that is attached to anything however much good there may be in it, will not arrive at the liberty of divine union. For whether it be a strong wire rope or a slender and delicate thread that holds the bird, it matters not, if it really holds it fast; for, until the cord be broken the bird cannot fly.”
Richard Rohr talks about the point before and after rock bottom as the first and second halves of our lives. In the first half, we construct for ourselves our identities—our interests, our tastes, our image, and think that we are powering it all by our own will. But something happens, and we are brought into confusion then clarity and begin to live with humility, compassion and surprisingly, freedom, as we admit powerlessness, let go,and rest in the one who calls us by name into relationship and into life.
Our scripture for today begins with the prophet Joel speaking to a people who have hit rock bottom. Joel describes an event of destruction so extreme, and representing such a break from God, that it must be shared as the ultimate cautionary tale to future generations. The people are lost, and the way they are consumed by their own addictions is represented in the scripture as a swarm, an army of locusts covering the land and devouring everything in their path. These locusts are countless, ravenous, and unconquerable. And Joel says, basically, your behavior has brought on your death. Let all the inhabitants of the earth tremble, he says, a day of doom is near. But then Joel surprises the people. He says that “even now at your lowest point of despair and destruction, God is calling you back into relationship. “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning,” says God. “Rend your hearts, not your garments.” God is saying, “turn around,” take heart, take courage and walk with me. Begin the second half of your life, rather than staying in the grief and lostness of your own ways.
In this next week, I invite you to consider your own habits, attachments, addictions and lostness. When do these things manifest? In what situations are you triggered to turn toward that substance or behavior? It very well could be that as you turn toward these questions, and look underneath, you will some very painful stuff. But be assured that you are not alone. You are accompanied at all times by God who came to us as a human being, who knows our sufferings, and in deed has suffered too. This struggle is the path of the risen Christ, the path that leads to true abundant life. Christ showed us that there is no way around suffering, only a way through. So hear the words of the one who calls you beloved, “Return to me with all your heart. Cast your burden on me. Where you are weak, I am strong.”
The good news of the gospel isn’t that we are powerless, it is that God is powerful. It is that in the trials and tribulations of our addiction to a substance or a habit or a way of thinking that is keeping us from living in full grace, we are invited to let go and accept God’s ever present goodness. When we find ourselves lost, sitting in ashes of our lives, God comes to us in grace. Amen.