January 10, 2016 – The First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
You’ve probably noticed that we’re using a different sort of bulletin this morning. Since we’ve put all of the words right there in your hands, you don’t have to do the usual “Episcopal juggle” of switching back and forth between two books, a bulletin, and some inserts. And you may be so excited about that that you haven’t noticed that we’ve added the twelve steps of recovery into the context of the service, putting each step in the part of our liturgy that roughly corresponds to that step. We aren’t saying them out loud, but, if you read them and think about them and hold them in your heart and mind while we worship God together, you may see how what we do on a Sunday morning is, in fact, a lot like a twelve-step program in miniature. It isn’t a perfect fit, but, each week in church, we admit our brokenness, turn to God for help, proclaim our hope for restoration, seek Communion with our creator, and ask God to help us take that good news into the world. To those who know the twelve steps frontwards and backwards, that sounds pretty familiar.
But why are doing this in church? Other than a nice, convenient parallel, why would we take a Sunday to talk about addiction and recovery? Well, for two reasons: first, without exception, all of us are affected by addiction, and, second, without equivocation, the hope of recovery is the hope of the gospel.
All of us are touched by the ravages of addiction. Some of us are addicts, which is to say that some of us know what it means for our lives to become unmanageable because of a compulsive, uncontrollable addiction to alcohol, narcotics, gambling, sex, or another life-destroying vice. Whether we’ve admitted it or not, whether we are in recovery or not, we know addiction firsthand. And others of us live with addicts. Maybe our spouse has a drinking problem. Or maybe it’s our parent. Or maybe it’s our child. Whether it’s right at home or a little further away, all of us know someone who is an addict. They are our families and our friends and our co-workers. They are people we know and love. Many of them are addicts even though we don’t realize it. Maybe they have found help in managing their addiction, or maybe we haven’t noticed it yet, or maybe we have turned a blind eye or simply learned to accept the chaos that their addiction brings. But all of us know addicts.
And, even though all of us know more addicts than we probably realize, a life plagued by addiction can be the loneliest existence imaginable. There is no lonelier place than sitting in your car at work, where you down a pint of vodka before walking through the door. There is no quieter place than an empty house, where even your family has deserted you. There is no colder place than the bathroom floor, which has become your bed yet again. There is no sadness deeper than turning down the Christmas party invitation or making an excuse for why your family cannot come and visit because your husband or wife is out of control. And why so lonely? Because addiction—whether yours or that of someone you love—comes with unbearable shame.
Shame is the real separator. It is the manmade wall that cuts us off from the land of the living—from those we love. Many of us believe wrongly that our compulsive drinking is something that we should be strong enough to control on our own or that our family member’s addiction is somehow our fault because we were not supportive enough or loving enough or patient enough. And, as long as we believe that—as long as we think that trying a little bit harder can get us out of this mess—we’ll never find sanity. Left up to us, we will always make the wrong choice. That’s because addiction is a disease. It is a part of who we are. And we cannot choose our way out of our addiction any more than a cancer patient can decide not to have cancer. But the world says try harder. And our deluded brains say try harder. Yet the harder we try, the more we will fail, and the deeper our shame becomes. That cycle of shame can only be broken when we surrender and admit that we need help.
And that’s the story of salvation. Hear what the prophet Isaiah says to God’s people when they needed God’s help the most:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (43:1-3)
Those words are spoken to a people whose lives are in ruins. Yet, to those who know what it means to be exiled from their homes, to be ostracized by those around them, to be lost and hopeless, God says, “You are mine. You belong to me. I have not forgotten you.” To those who are inundated by the crashing waves of life, God says, “I am with you in your struggle.” To those who have been subjected to the fires of tribulation, God says, “You will not be consumed. I am with you.” When everyone else has left you and you feel deserted and most alone, God says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I am the Lord your God. I am your savior.”
Notice that God does not promise to remove our sufferings. God does not tell us that he will wave his hand and make the way easy for us. The waters still crash down upon us, and the fires still threaten to burn us up. But God declares that he is with us even in our loneliest places. Even when we cannot feel that he is there, God is with us. Even when everyone else has left us—when no one else knows what we are enduring—God is there, present in our suffering, promising to bring us home. Even when we are too ashamed to look for him and ask him for help, God still calls us by name because, no matter what happens, we still belong to him.
And, as Christians, how do we know that? Because of the story of Jesus. God sent his Son into a world that rejected him and abandoned him and delivered him over to death, and still God was with him. We see that the tomb is empty, and, if we believe that God has raised his Son from the dead despite our deepest failures, we believe that God’s love for us is unbreakable. As Christians, it is the waters of baptism that crash upon our heads, and those waters, which we remember today, remind us that we, too, are buried with Christ so that God might raise us to new life. Our hope is not found in trying a little harder. Our sanity is not dependent upon the choices we make. We have hope because God has chosen us and refuses to let our brokenness separate us from his love. With Christ, we have been through the waters and fires of death, and God has been with us and will stay with us until he brings us home.
But that isn’t the end of the sermon. The story of salvation doesn’t end with God’s love for us because, if God loves the unlovable, we can, too. It is, in fact, God’s love that makes our love for others possible. If we can accept that God, who is holy and perfect, loves even the outcast and estranged, then, in him, we find the ability to love those who are otherwise unlovable. But I’ll even go one step further. God’s love doesn’t just make our love for the outcast possible; it demands it. If we believe that God loves us, we must love each other in the exact same way. We must love until our love becomes perfect. And that means no more shame, no more hiding, no more judgment. God’s love has set us free—every single one of us. That is the message of the gospel. And, if we are going to be children of the gospel, we must love as we have been loved—without condition and without reservation. No more shame. No more guilt. Only love.