Sermon series, The 12 Steps
David B. Weber, 9 June 2013
“Step One: Powerless”
I’m going to be talking about the Twelve Step program this summer because the Twelve Steps are more, so much more than the life-saving vehicle for drunks to get sober. They are that..but they are also the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ in a form you may not have heard before. The Twelve Steps are a profound way of discovering, following, and learning to live in the peace, the joy, and the freedom- in The Way demonstrated by Jesus the Christ today, even today.
The Church in America is in trouble, yes. But that gives me great hope and I want to tell you why but that will take me all summer to do. Thus, these Twelve Steps- one, sometimes two a week for the next ten weeks. Because in these Steps I know there is liberation. In these Steps I know there is hope even for those who feel that hope is gone and is no more. In these Steps there is a new Church being born because, in them, there’s an always new Creation forming.
I read an observation this week that will serve as an introduction to this series:
Do you remember 15 years ago when there were phone booths or payphones everywhere? On the sides of stores, beside the front doors, on street corners everywhere? Today though, there is none to be found anywhere. Look around today- you just can’t find them!
Now, it would be easy to conclude based on what we see, or don’t see, that people must not care about communicating anymore- no pay phones can only mean one thing, right? People must not have much to say anymore! Of course, we also know that would be a wrong, if not stupid conclusion. In fact, communication between people has increased exponentially- more people than ever are communicating and in more and more ways!
They’re doing it in new ways- cell phones, text, email- we carry those means of communication in our pockets instead going to a wall to use one of those methods.
Maybe if we redecorated the phone booths, people would want to use them again? Maybe if we used pink, green, or yellow phones and only charged a dime, people would come back to the wall at the 7-11 and talk to each other again?
But, of course they wouldn’t. That’s nonsense. And here’s the analogy: All over America today, there are people, usually over 60- like me, looking around at their half-filled, or quarter-filled churches and remembering when they were youngsters in the 1950s and 60s and mom and dad and all the aunts and uncles and cousins and friends down the street and friends from school were sitting shoulder to shoulder in rooms like this one. We look around and make the too-easy assumption that people must not have questions about God any more, they must not feel that spiritual need any more- they’re not here after all. They must not need God the way those people in the Sunday suits and patent leather shoes did back in the 50’s!
And that’s nonsense, too. People may not be coming to church the way they used to, but that does not mean they are not looking for the Big Answers, or that they are not feeling the Big Problems, or wondering about the Big Questions. It only means that they’ve found other ways which for the time being seem to be meeting those Big Needs.
Seem to be– there’s the key phrase. Because while a majority of Americans will still say they are Christians, and while a super majority will still say they are spiritual, there’s a lot of disconnect between those assertions and what is happening in the country.
Today, this day, twenty veterans of military service will take their own lives. There are today unprecedented spikes in the suicide rates of people my age- of Baby Boomers, the very ones who sat as youngsters with their parents in those once-upon-a-time crowded churches.
The United States has the largest per capita rate of incarceration of any country in the world- more than China, more than Russia, more than any Middle Eastern country. And almost every prisoner I’ve met over these last almost 20 years has a working Christian vocabulary. They didn’t grow up completely without church.
Divorce rates, rapes, high-school drop-out rates, bullying, hate crimes, open and virulent racism..all of those things point to the fact that despite exponentially increasing ways being available of knowing about God- knowing lots of words about God, there is a stunning lack of transformation happening in church or anywhere else- with a few exceptions.
And many of those darkest statistics emanate in the greatest numbers from the states of the so-called American Bible Belt! More and more people know the right words about God, but fewer and fewer seem to be experiencing the turning inside out, upside down transforming presence of God in their lives.
Churches have failed, far too often, to provide a place that can for certain be found in the dusty, coffee-stained rooms of an old shopping center where there’s a triangle on the door which says to those in the know, “Come in. As you are. We accept you.”
The very words Jesus demonstrated wherever he walked, talked, and ministered: “Come in. As you are. We accept you” are words that all churches say and some of them actually live. But they are words that define every single Alcoholics Anonymous meeting room, every Narcotics/ OverEaters/ Eating Disorder/ Gambling/Sexual Addiction Anonymous Meeting Room in the world.
Those triangle marked doorways are all over the place- in Jacksboro, at the First National Bank meeting Room on Tuesday nights, in Graham in the basement of the First Methodist Church and in a converted house on Oak Street. In Wichita Falls just off the Jacksboro Highway, in Fort Worth at the Glass House, in Dallas behind TI near Markville Dr, at Preston Center, and just behind Jupiter Lanes near Garland Rd and Gus Thomasson.
That’s the one I first went into in 1993, the one behind Jupiter Lanes. The history that went before my reaching for that door is secondary to the fact that for years, including the first eight years after I’d said “Yes!” to Jesus, I didn’t know how I could or would or if I could stop drinking. At first, in the 70s, I would blame it on the arthritic pain of my back- I could sleep with the help of Jim Beam. But beer and much more beer had defined every year since high school, and by the late 80s, early 90s it was every single day and I didn’t know how NOT to buy an 8-pack of 16 oz Buds on the way home every evening and begin drinking them almost as soon as they hit the front seat.
And I’m sorry if these words disappoint, but I tell them to you because there is a light. A Light. A capital L, Light of the World Light at the end of that dark, wet tunnel, and at the very beginning of the Way you all now share with me. If you don’t know about the darkness first, then you will not be able to fathom what this Light means to me now.
Step One of Alcoholics Anonymous says this:
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—
that our lives had become unmanageable.
It was powerlessness over the alcohol, powerless over the golden brown buzz that softened the regrets I had about my life, the disappointments and depression I would feel about what I was doing with my life, and the never- ending dull but real pain in my back, acute back then, that seemed to limit every thought or dream I would momentarily have.
Powerlessness. Paul wrote of it in his letter to the Romans, chapter 7; 15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.
Will- the iron bound determination to change was not possible in and of myself. Day after day I would pledge to myself, “No, not today,” but then there was a Red Coleman’s right over there, or a 7-11, or the Quik-Shop on Lemmon. And once again I would do the very thing I hate. I could will what is right, but I could not do it.
Yes, I know, it sounds absurd in retrospect, but I also know statistically that there are some here who know exactly what I mean.
It was on Emmaus weekend in November of 1993 that I said out loud to God, and to another human being, “I can’t do this. I don’t know how to stop.” Somebody prayed. I don’t know who, and I don’t remember anything they said. But I sat there for awhile after they’d stopped and spiritually and imaginatively handed an 8 pack of Bud Dry to Jesus and said the words- maybe out loud- “Hang on to this for me.”
So, beginning in November of 1993, the new good news in my life became bad news for Red Coleman, 7-11, and the Quik Shop on Lemmon. Because Jesus is still holding that 8 pack.
I’ve not bought a beer since then. To be honest, I did drink a beer last summer at my son’s wedding. But it was enough to know that I’d better not drink another.
I left Emmaus that weekend and a friend intercepted me and said “You’re going to need help. Go to AA.” He wanted to take me, but I wanted to go by myself and see for myself without someone else telling me what I should see or what he wanted me to see. (Pride!)
So I found that place over on Centerville and it was a dump. It smelled of 20 years of cigarette smoke and ten thousand pots of strong coffee. There were bikers in there, old women with too much makeup, a teenage boy with a KISS t-shirt, and a guy that I knew from ______United Methodist Church who sang in the choir each week. He saw me, and motioned for me to come sit beside him, leaned over and said, “Welcome.” Embarrasing? Yes, because for several weeks I had been this man’s Sunday School teacher.
That was the beginning. I’ve since come to know rooms like that as churches. Sometimes they smell. In the last decade, though, most of them are non-smoking. The people are still- often- a mess. But I know I am not one bit better or worse than any of them, and they know that about me and each other, too.
Acceptance, love, and grace fill those rooms as stories are told, as forgiveness is offered, and as hope is renewed.
But it begins with those words- the hardest words most human beings have to say: “I am powerless. My life is unmanageable. I need help.”
This is the same language, spoken in different words by the prophet Isaiah when it seemed the burden he had to speak prophetically to Israel had become unbearable:
12 My dwelling is plucked up and removed from me
like a shepherd’s tent;
like a weaver I have rolled up my life;
he cuts me off from the loom;
from day to night you bring me to an end;[a]
13 I cry for help[b] until morning;
like a lion he breaks all my bones;
from day to night you bring me to an end.[c]
14 …My eyes are weary with looking upward.
O Lord, I am oppressed; be my security!
These are the words-“I am powerless”- that each person who seeks the transformed life must speak, in whatever language, in whatever words they can muster. Only when my image of myself- my false image born of pride, tradition, or treasure- only when I can be honest with God and say, “I can’t do this by myself!” only then can the addiction to whatever-it-is begin to be gone.
It is true of the adrenaline seeking meth addict, the sexually out-of-control man or woman, the overeater trying fill the emotional emptiness they feel, the rageaholic, the abusing husband, the abused wife, the shopping addict, the television zombie, the one who lives a life of fear, the one who lives a life of false bravado, the lonely, the broken, the power-monger, the user, and the used.
In short, a transforming relationship with Christ begins for anyone only when they have come to the end of themselves. Only when a person says “I can’t do this alone, “ or “I need help,” or “I’ve come to the end of my rope,” only then can the Light, the true Light, the Light of all humankind begin to shine.
That’s how Jesus sees all of us. All of us: Matthew 9:36
36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Harrassed and helpless we reach for the door, and pull it open, and the Light begins- finally- to come in. “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”
Step One can just as truthfully be stated this way, and this is the way we will speak of all the 11 steps to come as well:
We admitted we were powerless over our sin—that our lives had become unmanageable.
Whatever that thing is- that thing that has gotten between your ears and God’s voice; that thing, that habit, that way of thinking that has gotten between God’s heart and your heart, whatever it is that wakes you up at night, or keeps grabbing at your mind all day.. that thing, that sin, that thing over which you may feel powerless and which is earning you compounded daily guilt..that thing..
Well, it’s OK to say “I need help.” That’s the first step. That’s the hardest step. That”s the step that begins to strip away the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves, that”s the step that begins to expose our wounds.
And it is only by exposing those wounds, those hurts, that guilt, that sin, that the Light, the true Light, the capital L Light of the world can begin to shine on them and heal them.
There’s more to say, because already- I know- transformation has begun to happen today.
Next week, we’ll begin to talk more about the Power that is greater than ourselves. Bring a friend. There is hope.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of our faith. Amen
Northbound US 81 zig-zagged east
through Sisseton, South Dakota
past a Lutheran church, a graveyard,
and the Mobil Supper Club
before straightening north again and
heading toward Fargo.
I think an Interstate, odd-numbered,
has either obliterated 81 by now
or turned its two lanes into six,
interrupted only by occasional exits
where Supper Clubs have become Applebees
and the tables are filled with travelers
rather than Lutherans (or Methodists, or Indians).
But there is a place
about two miles north of Sisseton’s
city limits where, in the winter of ’72,
there where miles of barbed wire and oak posts
separated the highway from the prairie,
that one morning, about 7 or 8
when the eastern sunlight was bouncing from
hill to rise
in the reflected white light of last night’s snow and ice,
that box elder trees, ten of them or twenty of them,
caught the sunlight in ice-covered branches and
glassine canopies became as
frozen fire burning against the cold, so clear blue sky.
Cold fire, forty years ago. But
David B. Weber, March 2013
These words were preceded by:
A grilled cheese sandwich
Born of a lactating Guernsey cow
Imported from a British isle to a land
Several hundred million years previously
A volcano cooled, its lava eroded, and
The new soil there was crawled upon by fish
Travelling in genetic jumps toward feathers, and hair
Shaped by gentle and relentless winds blown
By meteoric dust clouds over thawing glaciers and
Stampeding oceanic bacteria.
Try, try again to find the beginnings of these words
While I breathe in the smoke of photosynthetic fires lit
By the sun and stoked by the debris of long-rotted
Cephalopods and coral reefs.
There is no magic, there is no first word;
There are only new questions,
Bent into forms which we can speak,
And words which we can write:
These words, never ending
The great task is to walk among wild things and
To let go of maple, bee, cloud, vine, dandelion, winecup, dragonfly, and squirrel
is to give oneself over to the intimidating, attractive, green, blue, red, high, far, close, toothy, wet, alluring
instead of apart.
It is to allow the language of here, beside to replace the chatter of knowledge and subjugation.
It is to become present, now
and listen without expectation
and feel without the need to define.
It is to see and to be seen
and a new kind of love.
Today I sat with strangers in the smooth green of a hospital
on chairs leaned from by daughters and their daughters and a son
and a sister (I think)
and a man
with the blood of his wife on the bib of his overalls
and on his lap, where he had cradled her
when he found her beside the bed with a gun with a gun
with a gun
(his daughter with tattoos of the sun on her shoulders told me this, sobbing
and she had never heard before the sound of her dad’s scream)
I told them there were no answers, not now, maybe never
Prayers: “O Father God, hear..”
“Oh God, oh God, ohgodoh….”
The sister (of the man, it has been confirmed) and a granddaughter (probably)
on cell phones, telling others
“half an hour ago..”
“there was an empty pill bottle..”
“no, beside the bed..”
“in the emergency room now..ohgodoh..”
My Prayer now: “Shhhh..hold somebody’s hand”
and then some words in my practiced voice low and slow,
It is quiet now, for a half a minute then a minute,
then there is the helicopter- we can hear it,
and a nurse comes in and says
the Care Flight to downtown is here,
and we can hear it and the daughters and the man and his sister and the son have
in the helicopter
and hope in what is downtown.
They leave the room-
“who will ride with me, her, you?”
and “which cars?”
and I am the only one able to see in the nurse’s eyes
that time is bending again into eternity
Dark diamonds of flesh
taut and still, so still
waiting in heated anticipation
for any nearby movement
which will sate the hungry emptiness
born of sun-warmed
and eons-old reptilian neurologies.
There is no evil in the narrow yellow eye slits
nor in the coilspring-tight body ready now to lunge
The quick pointing scarlett/black tongue is not
pointing there, there, and there
nor in split-seconds of greed beyond need.
There is no evil here in this
spring warmed shale bedrock
where waits the winter-hungry snake.
It is only the still point
of the universe
in the throes
of New Creation