My March 21st Sermon
I preached this morning for a combined service of our daughter Laura’s church, Bethel, and their across the river neighbor, Riverside. Here’s that sermon.
John 12: 20 – 33
It is good to be with you, Bethel and Riverside Churches, this morning. These days, Linda and I are with Bethel UCC most every Sunday, one of the silver linings on the COVID cloud. And I’ve had occasion to be with Riverside Church several times over the last decade, both as a guest preacher and as congregational consultant.
The theologian, Karl Barth, said that preachers are to go about their task, and prepare their sermons, with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. Which is a way of saying that God’s word comes to us always, and must come to us, in the context of our on-going lives and the realities of the world in which we live.
Those realities often weigh heavily on us, and they do so again this week. I am speaking of course of the shootings, the murders, in Atlanta. These are not the only the only things grieve and disturb us. We are aware of the brutal repression and loss of life in Myanmar or Burma. On this, the tenth anniversary, we grieve the brutal civil war in Syria. We don’t have to look far to find the bad news. And, of course, the pandemic and it’s toll.
But the shootings in Atlanta have bored into our soul because they touch on so many of the issues that seem, at this point, particularly American and at the center of our many conflicts. Race and racism, the scapegoating of the other and in particular of immigrants, assaults on the most vulnerable, violence against women, addiction, guns and gun violence.
It can all be, it is, overwhelming.
We have, inevitably, different takes, perspectives on what happened in Atlanta this week. As always, our own experiences shape what we see and how we see it. My own take, as perhaps some of you may know as readers of my blog, focused on the perpetrator’s confessed sex addiction. There’s a reason for that. Over the years I have had significant contact with those who struggle with addiction, including sex addiction, and those who are in the recovery community. I have learned much from them.
Others saw these events primarily through the lens of what many have called “America’s original sin” of racism, of doctrines and systems of white supremacy, which some of us wished to think we had left behind, but have not. And the mounting violence, crimes of hate, directed against Asian-Americans that have been stirred and given cover, at least in part, by our former President and his blaming of the pandemic, the COVID- virus, on China and Chinese people. Many Asian-Americans now live in daily fear. They are worried for the safety of elderly members of their families and community. It is evil; it is wrong. But it too is not new.
Laura has cautioned me that in my focus on addiction in relation to the Atlanta murders I ran a risk of appearing to push racism to the side and so minimizing these issues which face our country. That was not my intention, but I understand that concern and take it to heart.
That said, I think there is a fundamental connection here between addiction and racism that is relevant to what is in the other hand of the preacher, if Barth be our guide, which is the Bible.
Addiction, I have come to understand it, happens when a person’s heart and soul are consumed by self-loathing and shame. I believe that the soul of that young man who murdered eight people, six of them Asian, two of them Caucasian, in Atlanta this week had, in that moment, been wholly consumed by self-loathing and shame, something which his professed faith and church involvement had not lessened but only intensified. And our fetish with guns and our lax gun laws gave him the opportunity to turn that rage into murder.
Addiction is what happens to a person consumed by self-loathing and shame. The addict looks for some relief in their addiction, but ends up only deepening their self-loathing and shame. It is a vicious, vicious cycle.
Racism too is rooted, fundamentally, —at least I believe — in self-loathing and shame, which is directed outward toward those we perceive to be different from and less than us. Racism is, in this sense, a kind of addiction. As a nation, we need to get into recovery. By fits and starts we are trying to do that. Your two churches combined Lenten program is part of that work.
Now, here’s the thing: you don’t have to be a full-on addict of one form or another, or a virulent or violent racist, to experience — at least at some times, and in some ways — self-loathing and shame.
Speaking for myself, I am not a complete stranger to the feelings and the fears that may have driven that young man in Atlanta to his tragic and evil actions, or that have so disfigured the souls of people as to lead to acts of hatred and violence against African-Americans, Asian-Americans and sexual minorities.
We all, I believe, have got some amount or experience of crippling shame and self-loathing which at some times and in some ways, hold us as in chains, and cause us to undermine ourselves and hurt others.
The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Church in Rome, put it this way: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate . . . I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want. Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?” Paul captures, to my mind, this experience of being, at times, our own worst enemy and our seeming helplessness to free ourselves. At such times, in moments of such despair, only a word from beyond ourselves can break the chains. Which is why Paul, in the very next sentence can say, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ, our Lord!” The intrusion of Christ into Paul’s life shattered the chains and set him free.
A peculiarity of the Christian faith, which it shares with the various 12-Step Recovery programs, which are really an outgrowth of Christianity, is that it tells us the only way to get a handle on this is to face the parts of ourselves that we will do nearly anything not to face, to bring them out of the shadowed recesses of our soul and into the light — or in more traditional language — to confess them, to ask for help, and know the grace of forgiveness.
Today’s text from the Bible, from the Gospel of John, is about just that. It is about Jesus Christ, soon to die, facing on the cross all the sin, all the self-loathing and all the shame, that are in us, bearing it and destroying its power over us.
I realize that my words to this point have been quite somber, you might say, “Lenten.” I don’t apologize for that — we’re dealing with a lot of sad, hard stuff. And one of the reasons I am a Christian is that our faith does not pretend that suffering and evil do not exist.
That said, I want to change the tone a bit.
And as I do so, I want to draw from the program, a podcast, “On Being,” with which some of you may be familiar. I believe when it started it was called “On Faith,” but at some point became “On Being.” The host is Krista Tippett. Near the last Valentine’s Day she had as her guest on that podcast Alain de Botton. De Botton is a philosopher who has done an unusual thing. Instead of spending all this time talking to other academic philosophers, in ways that no normal person can possibly understand, he talks with and writes for ordinary people about the stuff they are dealing with.
What a concept: philosophy that is useful!
De Botton had written an article for the New York Times called “Why We Always Marry the Wrong Person,” which became the most read article ever published by the paper. Which tells you something. And in the podcast that’s pretty much the topic, love, relationships, and marriage.
De Botton says some remarkable and bracing things, but he does it all in a chipper British accent — though born in Switzerland, he’s British — and somehow it makes his tough truths all sound kind of breezy and cheerful, even funny.
He says that all of us discover, after a while that we are not, nor have we married, Prince Charming or Miss Perfect. In fact says de Botton — cheerfully — we are all “pretty deeply damaged people,” whose best chance of making a go of it lies in knowing this and not getting too defensive or hard on ourselves about it.
“The great enemy of love, of good relationships, good friendships,” says de Botton, “is self-righteousness.” He continues, “If we start by accepting that of course we’re only just holding it together and, in many ways, we are really quite challenging people . . . “ then an aside, “I think if someone thinks that they’re easy to live with, they’re by definition going to be pretty hard and don’t have much understanding of themselves,” . . . “I think there’s a certain wisdom that begins by knowing that, of course, you, like everyone else, are pretty difficult.”
That is what the gospel says: we’re all flawed, damaged people who at times, do damage to ourselves and others. But instead of pretending we’re not and being self-righteous, or beating up on ourselves about it; De Botton’s cheerful realism invites us to admit this truth, face up to it, and be as gracious and kind to ourselves and to others as we possibly can — because God is gracious, to you and to us all. It’s not you see that some of us are God’s lost and errant children. We all are. But God, like that crazy father in the parable of the prodigal, does not wait for us to get ourselves all sorted out. In Jesus Christ he rushes out to meet us while we are yet far off and gathers us, dirty, desperate and smelly, into his loving embrace. “This is my son, my daughter, who was lost, but is found.”
Some of you, who are as old as I am, may remember when “Transactional Analysis” was a thing. The TA mantra was, “I’m okay; you’re okay.” William Sloane Coffin, a name some of you may recognize, a well known preacher of a generation ago, said the Christian version of that was, “I’m not okay, you’re not okay — but that’s okay.”
Sometimes we get the idea that the Christian way to deal with our flawed selves, with the wounds we carry, is to deny our flaws and failures and to work really, really hard to be really, really good, maybe even perfect. Christianity, then, gets turned into something it’s not, which is all the stuff that we have to do to get on God’s good side or to show other people that we are the ones on God’s side.
The upshot is you get very busy, and exhausted and frustrated, resentful and angry — if that’s what you think Christianity is, that’s it stuff you have to do to justify yourself; stuff you have to do to show yourself and others that you’re really okay.
We may get so busy and exhausted in such a pursuit that, if we lucky we crash and burn in a heap of tears and frustration; and may — here’s the lucky part — then be able to hear God say: Stop it, stop it right this minute, that the stuff you are busy doing to try to show you’re on my side or because you think it you will land you on my good side. In Jesus Christ I have already taken your side, and I will never, never leave it. Full stop.
Jesus speaks here in the Gospel of John of his pending death. But the words he uses that are strange. He speaks of “glorification,” of being “lifted up,” and of a seed that must fall to the earth and die if there is to be much fruit. Through dying, life.
We come today, bowed down by suffering and evil, the world’s, and perhaps some of our own. Jesus knows. He gets it.
Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, we tell again the whole story of him betrayed by one of his own, abandoned by every friend, mocked and scorned by the good, the righteous, people, and put to death by the combined forces of church and state. It doesn’t get any worse. But God says that what we see, a man on a cross dying alone, is only part of what’s going on. At a deeper level there’s something else. There’s glory.
Jesus faces into the full powers of Death and Sin, into all the self-loathing and shame that weighs down so heavily upon us. He bears it. He transforms it. He heals it.
As he is lifted up on the cross, we see the love and grace — and victory — that are the flaming heart of the universe, a love that goes to furthest depths to find us, to claim us, to free us from bondage to whatever self-loathing and shame have brought us low. And to lift us up. Our failures and addictions are real. Their consequences can be devastating.
We face them knowing that they are not the last word. The last word, and the first, is a grace we can never earn, only receive. Rest in this grace. Rest in Christ and his cross to which the world’s sin and self-loathing and shame have been nailed and destroyed. Rest in his grace as long as you need.
Then, when you are ready, go again into the world God loves and take up the struggle for justice and peace, the work of mending God’s creation, trusting his promise that far more can mended than you know. Amen.