Thank you to Grant Holly
for reading my sermon for me last Sunday.
I knew, because he is an actor,
that he would make it sound good
even if it wasn’t.
Thankfully, I recovered
and feel nearly born again.
When the Nicodemus story comes up,
I almost always use it
as the story to anchor the sermon.
It’s such a theatrical story
it almost preaches itself.
But I’m not going to this time around.
I am going to go radical on us –
radical, as in “from the root.”
That Genesis story
takes us to the root of our religion,
and it is not really a comfortable place to be.
In fact, I’m probably going
to make you uncomfortable
and I sure as heck,
am going to make myself uncomfortable.
So with that introduction,
which probably doesn’t make you glad you came,
let’s go back a few years –
oh, let’s say, 3,500 years.
Way back to Abram.
Before we talk about Abram, though,
I want to stand in awe
of these few little lines from Genesis.
Really, we should take off our shoes,
light some incense,
place it on the altar and curtsy before this text.
Why? Because these four little verses in Genesis,
and what follows of course,
whispers the origins
of human mystical experience.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
all tiptoe back to this moment
between God and Abram
and point there – to that mythical spot –
as the moment
when it all began.
How many billions of human beings,
over how many centuries,
from the quiet moment
depicted in these verses?
What is described as taking place
between God and Abram
became a spiritual tsunami.
It rose up from that spot,
wherever it was,
and spilled over time and history
in its wake.
Now…please don’t go literal on me.
We’re not talking about
the blessings and curses in this story.
They are not what we should be in awe of.
Rather, in the origins of these few verses
we are holding a spiritual orb –a metaphor not a script.
So, please, don’t be Nicodemus
and confusing himself
when Jesus is waxing poetic.
These little verses in Genesis
hold the memory,
like a seed within a pod,
of an encounter between Abram and God.
Now they are a timeless bubble
that becomes an icon or metaphor.
In 12-step language,
this story is steps 1, 2 and 3.
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.
In other words, in both Judaism and Christianity,
we call it, “Surrender.”
In Islam, the word is, “Submission.”
Whatever we call it,
it is the core constitutional idea
of all three religions
and of the 12-Steps.
It is the radical,
the very beginning concept
upon which all other concepts are built.
Take this idea of surrender away
and all three religions collapse
as if gutted from the belly.
Again, don’t get literal on me,
but DO take the story from its point of view.
God tells Abram to go someplace,
someplace Abram has never been.
In fact, Abram does not even know the location
to which he is being sent.
God asks and Abram acts.
Abram does not know God.
Abram does not have a religion about God.
Abram does not know any doctrines about God.
All Abram has is the experience.
In that moment, whatever it is about God,
it is enough to compel Abram to GO.
Whatever it is about standing in the presence
of a power greater than ourselves,
it is enough to cause Abram –
maybe not you or me –
but enough to cause Abram, to GO.
His act of surrender,
his submission to God’s invitation,
is the smallest,
most indivisible fraction
upon which all three religions rest.
We might look at that today
and say, “well, that’s stupid.”
We may confuse this with Nazi soldiers
just doing what they were told,
or dupes who surrender their brains
to religious, political, or cultural influence.
There is another possibility
when it comes to surrender,
but I have to get more personal
than I would prefer in order to unpack it.
I have talked about this on occasion before
but I share it again,
because like Abram and God in Genesis,
this is a primary text for my life and ministry
and I keep going back to it.
The ordination vows that most people think of,
I suppose from Roman Catholic
or monastic traditions,
are Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.
But an Episcopal priest
only takes one vow, and I guarantee you
we don’t promise to be poor or chaste.
We do promise obedience.
I know, yikes!
It’s not just obedience either,
it is obedience to our bishop.
So, you see, my one vow
was of obedience to my bishop.
Now, you know me.
That seems like a stretch, right?
Well, as I discovered, obedience
is a kind of surrender,
a submission to the authority of another.
that is why it is our practice.
By practicing submission to authority presumably,
if that authority is acting faithfully,
we are practicing submission to God.
I told you it was a stretch.
Obviously it is a kind of a medieval idea
that taken literally is simply absurd.
Yet I will tell you there is a direct connection
between my taking that vow
and twenty-six days later,
getting clean and sober.
This is an insight that has come to me
decades later, and that
I had no inkling of at the time.
But I suspect that going through
the struggle to take that vow
opened the door to an even more important –
for me – act of surrender to God.
You see, I had been struggling with alcoholism
and drug abuse for about twelve years
when I was ordained.
In fact, I had promised myself
that I would not drink
on the day of my ordination –
a promise, like most of the others,
I did not keep.
I had had many opportunities to get sober,
dating as far back as high school
when a Methodist minister
first expressed concern
about personality changes he was observing.
Then in college, my senior year,
another minister, himself a recovering alcoholic
and the college chaplain,
after receiving concern from fellow students,
approached me with literature from AA.
Then again, after college,
when I actually worked in a Mental Health hospital
with an alcohol detox unit in it,
I was asked to go through
an alcohol education program.
None of that was enough to help me stop.
Then again, after seminary,
when I was in my first congregation
serving as a deacon,
the rector, as part of my professional development
and not even knowing my issues,
required me to go through a twelve-session,
alcohol and drug education program
that was held at the church.
So I was the proverbial horse led to water
but wouldn’t touch it –
I had my own libations.
All through my twenties
I tried off and on to quit.
and harm to others
plagued me with shame
and guilt and fear
but none of that was not enough to help me.
The thing that saved me was my ordination.
It was that dang vow of obedience
that I did not want to take
that allowed me to finally surrender
twenty-six days later
after a particularly drunken Good Friday.
I struggled with that single vow,
sweated it worse than any dripping
you’ve ever seen me do in the summer.
It terrified me.
In the days leading up to my ordination,
I was like a fish desperately trying
to get back into the water.
I was trying to wiggling out of that vow
any way I could –
making all kinds of mental and theological
maneuvers in my own head,
to rationalize and water down what it was I was doing.
But then it came down to that actual moment.
Standing there in the presence of that moment
I knew I was taking a vow of obedience,
and theoretically, making an act of submission
I could come to regret.
Twenty-six days later,
recovering from that horrendous
Good Friday drunk,
I found myself finally able
to admit my powerlessness
and to ask God to help me.
In other words, I surrendered –
in the moment,
That was a mystical experience.
Nothing theoretical about it.
It was an existential moment, an experience
that had little to do with belief or doctrine
and EVERYTHING to do with total presence
in the moment
and total surrender
to a power greater than myself.
But of course, mystical experiences
are available to us
in moments other than painful surrender.
There is being consumed by beauty
or slain by love,
or born again by compassion.
But for any and all mystical experiences
the one thing they all have in common
is that we have to surrender ourselves
into the moment –
total and intense presence
in a single time and space.
It is always an act of “yes”
to a moment,
and always an act of surrender
to a moment,
and always an act of falling back
into our powerlessness
so that God can consume us
in that moment.
That is the radical
in those verses about Abram,
the root of our spiritual tradition.
Now of course,
there is more to the Abram story than that,
and more to my story than that moment –
all such stories go on and on
and even day by day.
The fact is,
we are not born AGAIN,
we are born again and again and again and again.
Resurrection is continual,
and not once and for all.
My point is,
which I am afraid
I have beaten you over the head with,
that surrender is not easily accomplished.
It comes harder for some of us than others.
It requires practice…over time.
even those tentative and failing ones,
build on one another
and over time
allow us to be better and better at it.
Surrender or submission
doesn’t just happen once and for all,
it is a process over time
that is day by day,
even hour by hour.
Each little or big effort
helps us get ready for the next one –
no effort is wasted.
whether our issues are
addiction or depression
workaholism or consumerism
perfectionism or cynicism,
surrender to God’s invitation
is the only true source of healing
that I have ever encountered.
Surrender is horrendously difficult itself,
and the healing process it ushers in
is no walk in the park either.
But there it is, starting with Abram
over three-thousand years ago.
It is the one indivisible idea
underneath every other spiritual note of wisdom.
Surrender IS our one true spirituality;
it IS our religion,
it IS our hope of healing.
It is NOT what we want to do
and it is NOT magic.
What it is
is the hardest of all things to do.
And yet, there it is
underneath it all – surrender.
So…I invite us
as we bring our prayers to the altar today,
to practice small surrenders:
to surrender our anxiety,
surrender our control needs,
surrender our cynicism,
surrender our woundedness,
surrender our fear,
surrender our complacency,
surrender our wishful thinking.
I invite us now
to enter into shared intercessions,
and at the end of that,
to come forward and surrender
our prayers at the altar.