Willing to be loved

A sermon based on Luke 13:22-35

These days, you don’t have to look very hard to find a 12-step group.

Most of us are familiar with
AA – Alcoholics Anonymous and relevant spin-offs
ACA – Adult Children of Alcoholics
Al-Anon/Alateen, for friends and family members of alcoholics
NA – Narcotics Anonymous
Nar-Anon, for friends and family members of addicts
CoDA – Co-Dependents Anonymous, for people working to end patterns of dysfunctional relationships and develop functional and healthy relationships

But did you know there are also groups for
CLA – Clutterers Anonymous
DA – Debtors Anonymous
FAA – Food Addicts Anonymous
GA – Gamblers Anonymous
Gam-Anon/Gam-A-Teen, for friends and family members of problem gamblers
OA – Overeaters Anonymous
OLGA – Online Gamers Anonymous
PA – Pills Anonymous, for recovery from prescription pill addiction.
SA – Smokers Anonymous
WA – Workaholics Anonymous

An economist writing for Forbes Magazine even suggests the U.S. needs an honest-to-God 12-step program to recover its long-term economic growth.

Though these groups differ with regard to the addiction around which the participants gather, each group begins with these five assertions which are part of the 12 steps after which these programs are named.
1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction and that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.
4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

These are just the first 5 of the 12 steps that addicts and family members of addicts who engage these programs must work in and through their lives on a daily basis.

Though I knew about 12 step groups, my understanding of their work deepened when I worked as a chaplain. One of my colleagues was a Methodist lay preacher who was entering his 19th year of sobriety. We talked a lot about the 12 steps – how they worked (or seemed not to) for him, how hard they were to follow and what a discipline it is. Over the years, he had sponsored many people, walking with them, picking them up when they fell and seeking his own sponsor when he felt he was falling. One of the things I learned from him is just how hard it is to work steps 4 and 5 and why he felt that it was at those two steps most of the people he worked with had floundered and some of them failed.

It has to do with surrender, he would say. As important as steps 1, 2, and 3 are, you are still exerting a some degree of self-control as you admit your powerlessness, make the decision to believe in a higher power and decide to turn over your will. It’s one thing to recognize powerlessness and the need for a higher power. It’s quite another thing to act on that decision in a way that makes a difference. Enter Step 4: Make a searching and fearless moral inventory. and it’s partner Step 5: Admit to everybody the EXACT nature of your wrongs.

These two steps, he would tell us, require so much vulnerability and so much grief that it can feel next to impossible to bear without a drink, a fix, a bet or a binge – whatever it is that provides the buffer from pain. Yet without steps 4 and 5 it is not possible to progress to the rest of the steps which move toward deep healing for themselves and those they have hurt by their addiction.

Though I haven’t been in need of a 12 step program because of substance abuse or other forms of diagnosed addictions, I look at these steps from time to time. And I too find that steps 4 and 5 often stop me cold.

Make a searching and fearless moral inventory
Admit to God, myself and another human being the exact nature of my wrongs

This, to me, is the narrow door Jesus refers to in his teaching. This is the move I need to make to recognize that my wants may need to take a back seat to the needs of others. The Pharisees didn’t like it much either and they knew Herod wouldn’t like it. The power politics of Jerusalem and the surrounding region were fraught with maneuvers that put politicians from Machiavelli to Karl Rove to shame. Pharisees, Saducees, the Temple Court, Herod, Pilate – none of these would be any too thrilled with these words: Some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last.

Who among us wants to own up to that? Who here wants to give up power? In many ways, whether we’re grasping for power over when we do housework or homework or if we’re struggling to retain power over a colleague or neighbor, this need to be in control is like an addiction to us. Every day we are fooled into thinking that we are in control of every moment of our lives – that we can maneuver our days so that the outcomes are exactly what we hoped for. And when we think about giving up the power we think we have or power that someone has passively let us take up, setting it down is next to impossible. We fear loss of control. We fear what will happen if we aren’t in charge of whatever “it” is.

We might be talking about trying to change decisions our adult children or our best friends make that frustrate or confuse us so much we are distracted from a loving and generous relationship.
We might be dealing with the need to control outcomes which are beyond our scope – banging our head against walls of our own worry .
We could be worried about what would happen if we weren’t in charge and kick our management into over-functioning mode.
We may actually fear for the health or well being of someone we love and pour ourselves into their lives at the expense of our own self-care.

As hard as it is to make this kind of searching inventory, there is really good news here this morning. Though Jesus recognized and was frustrated by the political maneuverings just as clearly seen in the powers that were and as in the midst of his own followers, the yearning in his heart is that of a mother hen who clucks and gathers recalcitrant chicks who don’t know any better. His desire is to take them all under his wings – to hold them, to love them, to comfort them in their addiction to power that only offered more fearful power plays and political wranglings – to offer them the deep peace that an infant feels when held in loving arms.

This is what Jesus offers us today. Not judgment. Not condemnation. But an invitation. An invitation to courageously and fearlessly take stock of our lives and to admit that we need help. An invitation to run to him, to be held by him. An invitation to be loved.

Some 12 step groups make use of the Serenity Prayer which is a shorter version of a prayer written by noted reformed theologian, teacher and social justice activist Reinhold Niebuhr. As we think about what the Spirit is calling us to set down, as we consider where our addictions get in the way of a deeper relationship with and connection to the Christ, let us pray:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

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