6th Sunday after Epiphany

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February 16, 2020

On rare occasions, our readings on a Sunday morning veer in the direction of the Apocrypha, i.e. the 15 historical and prophetic books of sacred literature that Anglicans/Episcopalians use for purposes of edification and spiritual counsel.  Today our case in point is from the Book of Ecclesiasticus, also known as Sirach. The category is Hebrew Wisdom Literature, a life-giving source of ethical teaching written two centuries or so before Jesus’ birth. 

“If you choose,” says Ben Sira the writer of this account, “you can keep the commandments of God, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. God gives you the power to do just that.  He has placed before you fire and water; so stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.”

This past week I conducted a clergy conference In Lisbon, Portugal, and I used these words of the rabbi in my addresses. It was a gathering of the Convocation of American Episcopal Churches in Europe together with our sister church—the Lusitanian Apostolic Evangelical Catholic Church of Portugal (not Roman Catholic—but Anglican—and what a name—I like to say it: the Lusitanian Apostolic Evangelical Catholic Church of Portugal).  We met together in that beautiful capital city of Lisbon, and I was invited to come over with an expectation that I might assist them in understanding and addressing the spiritual dynamics of addictive illness, alcoholism in particular—along with its insidious effect on families of those so afflicted. Our American congregations abroad—scattered throughout the European continent—are having quite a time with this disease and its many ramifications in church life, so they pocketed their pride, and they asked for help.  33 years in recovery from the disease of alcoholism, and a doctoral degree in spirituality, and the emergence of a life’s work helping addicts and their families—provide me with some degree of expertise when it comes to leading such a conference—“Been there, and done that” as the saying goes. 

We no longer observe “Alcohol Awareness Sundays” in the Episcopal Church.  Such Sundays used to be de rigeur in Episcopal life and practice, but sadly they have disappeared.  I’ll use to my time in Portugal as an opportunity to share with you what I shared with some of them…and we’ll make this our own Addiction Awareness Sunday.  Back in the olden days, especially in churches of the south where preachers still had a measure of credibility and their words a powerful sway, people like me could get up in a pulpit and raise the dickens with their congregations about the evils of smoke and drink.  And those dickens appeared to pay dividends—at least to some extent. Preachers screeched, temperance clubs flourished, stills were smashed in the name of Jesus—especially up there in NW Arkansas—Newton and Boone Counties to wit.  We had teetotalers all over the denominational map signing pledges of abstinence and promising on Bible stacks to lead lives along the proverbial straight and narrow—ultimately giving way in this country to Prohibition — Can you imagine?  13 years of Prohibition.

In 1920, the USA executed a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages.  Exasperated by attempts to control people’s behavior (which we know, or should know, that we cannot do), I can almost hear the comments on such an ill-fated and naive law.  Especially the question in our current parlance:  “And how’s that working for you America?”  In 1933, we repealed the constitutional amendment, and went back to walking our way down that primrose path that leads to perdition—at least for some of us—not all, but for some of us. 

Teetotal.  Now that’s a strange word.  Legend says a preacher man named Turner back in the early 1900s addressed the Preston SC Christian Temperance Society about the evils of John Barleycorn and the Demon Rum.  He castigated that crowd in no uncertain terms, saying that partial abstinence from intoxicating liquors would not do; that believers must insist upon capital “T” total abstinence. Hence total abstainers began to be called teetotalers.  Capital “T” total abstinence.  Of course a number of listeners to such homiletical fireworks didn’t sign the pledge, or take an axe to the stills.  Instead, They flocked en masse to the Episcopal Church where there were much less stringent rules for fellowship, where moderation was preached in all things, and where a libation or two was considered a pleasant and honorable thing to do and to share—with the proviso that one can handle it.

33 years ago, I capital T-totaled, and poured out my last glass of the demon rum, along with a few martinis.  I’m one of the 20% of human beings who cannot negotiate alcohol or drugs—and do so successfully.  People like me cannot drink or drug, or we end up in jail, or the looney bin, or the graveyard. It’s as simple as that.  The rest of you, I say “Salud” - “To your health” - “Go for it.” Just do so in moderation.  This life of sobriety has been quite the enormous gift for me, as well as for a number of others.  It has taken me all over the place—even Portugal—as a relatively sane person who can share his experience of recovery, or should I say salvation, in ways that trigger resonance in others who are similarly afflicted…and not only resonance, but healing identification, a desire to get off the road to leads to perdition, and a pledge to quit relying on ourselves when we have proved to be so unreliable.  God has placed before you fire and water—states the apocryphal preacher—with God’s good grace, stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.

Just to be clear, and to set the record straight, let me say that my name is Stuart, and I am a recovering alcoholic.  By the Grace of God, and the fellowship of a program of spiritual healing, I haven’t found it necessary to take a drink of alcohol, or to ingest any other mood-altering substance, since the 8th day of March, 1987—and for that enormous gift, I am forever grateful.  I’m not signaling myself out when it comes to addiction—Lord only knows, I’m not the only addict in this room.  We all have our addictions—attachments—idols that drive us to look for value and meaning and strength and purpose and relief in all the wrong places, It’s the nature of the human beast to go looking for love in all the wrong places, and we’ve just about mastered the art. 

In 1982—the #1 hit song in Little Rock, Arkansas was that of Johnny Lee:        

Well, I've spent a lifetime lookin' for you;
singles bars and good time lovers were never true.
Playin' a fools game hopin' to win; 
and tellin' those sweet lies and losin' again.
I was lookin' for love in all the wrong places,
Lookin' for love in too many faces,
searchin' their eyes and lookin' for traces
of what I'm dreamin' of.
I was lookin' for love in all the wrong places,
Lookin' for love in too many faces,

In the early 1970s, the liturgy professor at the Virginia Theological Seminary…a man by the name of Charles Smith…wrote a prayer that was later captured by the compilers of the Book of Common Prayer 1979—what I still refer to sometimes as the “new Prayer Book.”  As far as I can tell, and I have searched the matter, it was the first time an official prayer of any denomination in our country publicly addressed problems related to addictive illness.  With a significant percentage of the American population—perhaps as high as 20-25 percent suffering from alcohol or drug addiction—that’s pretty late in the game to start saying our corporate prayers for healing the afflicted in that area.  The denial of this disease and its effects on individuals and families is staggering.  Denial is refusing to acknowledge what in our hearts we know to be true.  It is the first and foremost symptom of the disease of addiction, and a dynamic that allows many of us to keep our heads in the sand until it becomes too late to get help.

Listen closely to the prayer as I pray it.  It has a peculiar flaw within it.  See if you can spot it.  O blessed Lord, you ministered to all who came to you: Look with compassion upon all who through addiction have lost their health and freedom.  Restore to them the assurance of your unfailing mercy; remove from them the fears that beset them; strengthen them in the work of their recovery; and to those who care for them, give patient understanding and persevering love.  Amen.

Notice how we the praying community distance ourselves from the poor addicts…Restore to them…remove from them….strengthen them in the work of their recovery.  As we say up there in my part of Arkansas, Mississippi County, “Why bless their hearts—they’re so drunk they don’t have the sense to come in out of the rain.”  I suggest we change the pronouns in this prayer to us.  Strengthen us in the work of our recovery, and to those who care for us, give patient understanding and persevering love.  Again—and let me be very clear about this—We all have what psychologists refer to as attachments; we all have what theologians refer to as idols; we all have what medicine refers to as addictions…people, places, things, situations, and dynamics to which we assign value, meaning, and purpose—and relief.  That which, those which, promise an easier and softer and quicker way to the kingdom…be it alcohol, or opiods, or material things, or religion, or success, or debting, or hoarding, or food, or pornography, or compulsive gambling, or power, or control.   Shortcuts to happiness where in our graven lust to feel better, some of us have lost control and life has become unmanageable.

My own presenting complaint that became a compulsion was alcohol.  I drank too much, I drank too often, and I drank to change my reality, alter my mood, and adjust my attitude… to make myself feel better, and to do so at “happy hour.”  I got to a point in that slippery slide that leads to alcoholism where I could not predict with any degree of success what would happen to me after I took that first drink.  At times I felt that I could control my ingestion of strong drink; at other times it was “katy bar the door”…and slowly but surely and quite imperceptibly, I began walking that primrose path that leads to perdition…troubles erupted…symptoms multiplied…problems gathered momentum…until a group of Episcopal church people like you had the nerve, the guts, the audacity to say to me as their Rector—Stuart, we love you, we care for you…but you have a problem that’s affecting all of us.  Let’s get help…for you and for us.  I was dispatched to a residential treatment center for alcoholism, and the help I was given in that place was monumental.  Just the knowledge of the disease itself was a godsend, but then there was the on-going treatment which has given me the remarkable and reasonably happy life that I have today.

During the intake procedure in that particular rehab, I met with the attending physician.  He was reading my chart with a degree of scrutiny, sported something of a scowl on his face, and I was prepared for him to say, “Son, you are doomed.”  Instead, he looked up, smiled and said, “Well I see here that you have a case of garden variety alcoholism.  My advice to you is this: Don’t drink anymore, go to recovery meetings regularly, get yourself a sponsor—a spiritual guide, read the literature and learn everything you can about the nature of addictive illness, do service for others, pray and meditate, and you’ll be fine.  I said, “wait, wait a minute… you don’t know the troubles I’ve seen…I need an exotic form of treatment….”  He said again… “Don’t drink another drop, go to meetings and do so regularly, get yourself a sponsor, read the literature, do service for others and a whole lot of it, pray and meditate and you’ll be fine… That was 33 years ago next week, and I have been much better than fine ever since that time.

On returning to Amarillo, Texas, after 28 days in that treatment facility, a man from a recovery group met me at the airport, and  told me that he would be my temporary sponsor, and that he was there to get me started in a program that would change my life from henceforth and forevermore.  A big promise and one that turned out to be right on target.  He showed me a passage that originated in early day recovery groups in New York City.  He asked me to commit these words to memory, and recall them every single day—which I do— and he said that these words were none other than the promise of God’s redemptive work in the world, and that if would take them to heart, I would find myself in the fellowship of the redeemed, have the shape of my own ministry redirected, and discover a joy and a peace like I had never known before.  Truer words were never spoken.  Let me share them with you as I close, and I will say to you that these words can apply to anyone—especially if you’ve struggled any kind of issue or dis-ease:

Showing others how we were given help is what makes life so worthwhile to us now.  Cling to the thought that, in God’s hands, our own dark past is the best resource we have when it comes to helping others.  With it—that is to say sharing our story with others either by living it or telling it— we can help others avert misery and death.  (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 124)

May the Lord who has given us the will to minister to all who through addiction have lost their health and freedom, now give us the grace and power to bring in the sheaves.