Leaving Pharaoh Behind When You Don’t Have a GPS: Sermon for March 19, 2017

Growing up I wanted one thing perhaps more than all others. I wished for it, hoped for it, prayed for it, and it never came. When I got to college I would occasionally catch glimpses of it, but it wouldn’t last long. And when I thought about my future, I would dream of living in a place where I could see it all the time.

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It snows a lot where I live. Happy spring!

What was it I was looking for? Snow. I was looking outside during the blizzard this week and I thought, “Hey, I got my wish!”

I know that this probably sounds funny to those of you who grew up in New England, but down South we have very little snow. And in Florida, where I spent most of my time growing up, we had none. There were no seasons. Every day was the same.

When I first decided to move to New England about ten years ago I didn’t do so for snow. I did it because it was the right choice for me, and it meant that I could do ministry in a region where I could be myself. But I must say that the snow was a nice perk. I couldn’t wait for changing seasons.

And then one day my first year, I had to stop for gas in the middle of the day. I got out of the car, and it was cold and snowy and wet. The wind cut through me like a knife. I had never experienced cold like that, or even thought it was possible. And I stood there pumping gas and shivering and thinking to myself, “Why in the world did I ever leave the South?”

So, in some small way, I can sympathize with the people in today’s Bible passage. They had a much more compelling reason to leave home, though. These are the Israelites who after generations of living in slavery in Egypt, after years of back-breaking work, had finally been able to leave. They had followed Moses out across the Red Sea and they had entered the wilderness, looking for the Promised Land.

And, as you know, this didn’t go exactly according to plan. The people who had left Egypt probably thought that Moses had a map that would take them where they needed to go, and they would be there in no time. What they didn’t expect is that they would be wandering, and wandering.

When it became clear that they weren’t getting anywhere anytime soon, people started to look at Moses and wonder if he knew what he was doing. He had told them God was leading him, but they weren’t so sure about that. And on top of that, they were getting thirsty. They didn’t have any water to drink.

And so they went to Moses and said to him, “Hey, why did you make us leave Egypt? Just to kill us?” Because back home in Egypt they may not have been free, but at least they had water.

And so it’s understandable that in this moment, so far away from the only home they’ve ever known, away from food and water, away from a Promised Land that they’re not sure even exists, and that they’re really not sure Moses knows how to find, they start to wonder why they ever left Egypt in the first place.

Moving from one region of the country and leaving a captor in search of freedom are two very different things. I’m not trying to compare them. But I do know what it’s like to make a change in your life, to run into obstacles, and then to wonder whether maybe things hadn’t been so bad back where you came from.

The fix for my problem was simple. I bought a thicker jacket and after a while I learned to really love the change of seasons here. And I know that moving north opened up a world of opportunities for me that wouldn’t have been available at that time in the South.

But for the Israelites it wasn’t so easy. They really thought that this change they had made might kill them. Yes, being Pharaoh’s captives had been terrible, and no they hadn’t liked it, but at least back in Egypt they didn’t have to worry about dying of dehydration. At least back there they knew what to expect.

I get that. I think we all have our own Egypts, and our own Pharaohs. We all have times and places in our lives where things aren’t ideal, but at least we know what to expect. We might not like it much, but captivity is somehow less scary than the wildness of freedom.

But here’s the catch: we all have our own promised lands too. They’re there waiting for us. But in order to get there we have to let go of what is holding us back. We have to tell our Pharaohs that we are leaving. And we have to head out in the wilderness and look for a place that no GPS can find for us.

And sometimes, that takes a long time, and we have to cut our own trail to get there.

I’ve talked before about how in my 20’s I wrestled with my drinking, and eventually got sober. I don’t tell this story here to draw attention to myself, but I’m sharing it, first, because I believe it’s nothing to be ashamed of and it’s important to break stigmas around addiction. And I also tell it because I know what it’s like to let a personal Pharaoh keep you in captivity, and away from the Promised Land.

Before I finally got sober, and I’ve been sober for a double-digit number of years now, I got really comfortable living in Egypt. And I started to be way too loyal to a Pharaoh who had no loyalty to me.

When I finally did get sober, I expected everything to be better automatically. I thought, “I’ll be in the promised land in no time.” But here’s the thing: the first two years I was sober were probably the worst two years of my life.

photoSeriously, if you told me I had to go back and relive any period of my life, I’d probably go back to my most awkward middle school years before I went back to those first two years. Everything seemed to go wrong. Nothing turned out the way I planned. Every day was a struggle. I was out there in the wilderness saying, “You know, at least back in Egypt I wasn’t dying of thirst.”

In retrospect, those years probably seemed so bad because for the first time in a long time I was being honest with myself, and I was seeing the world around me honestly too. I was seeing what I hadn’t seen for a long time. And so I kept moving forward, cutting a new path. And year three was pretty good. And year four was even better. And year five was amazing. And it’s been pretty amazing ever since.

But that promised land didn’t come easy.

I think it’s like that for a lot of people who have to make hard changes. Recently I was reading about people who leave abusive partners. Do you know on average how many times it takes someone to leave an abusive relationship and not go back? One? Two? Three? Four?

On average it’s seven times. Seven. And that’s no judgment on the person who is leaving. It is incredibly hard to walk away from someone who says they care about you, no matter how much they hurt you. It’s even harder when you have to walk away with little money or resources. Leaving that behind is as hard as leaving Pharaoh. Harder even, because at least Pharaoh never told the Israelites he loved them.

And those are just a couple examples of the Pharaohs who want to hold us back in captivity, and keep us from the promised land.

Chances are, there has been a Pharaoh in your life too. Maybe there’s one there now. Maybe there is something holding you back from the place that God is calling you to. And maybe you know there is something better out there, but the wilderness you’ll have to cross feels so big and forbidding. Maybe you’re afraid to leave what you know in order to become what you know you are meant to be.

You’re not the first, and you won’t be the last. And the good news is that while it may not be easy, you will not go alone, and you will not go without God.

When the people started to yell at Moses that he was going to kill them all, he went to God. And he said, “look God, these people are ready to kill me. I need help.” And God told Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and that water would then pour out.

Moses did that, and it did, and the people drank. And they were strengthened enough that they could keep on walking, keep on searching for the promised land.

If you are in the wilderness, if you are breaking free from Pharaoh, God is walking this journey with you. And if you need it, God will give you living water, the kind that will see you through to the end. And on those days when you might look back, choose instead to look forward. Because what kept you in captivity is never better than the journey that can take you home. Amen?

Donald Trump and the Gratitude Gap

The realization came to me while watching the “Mothers of the Movement” speaking at the Democratic National Convention. These mothers of children who had died too young and too violently, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and more, had come to Philadelphia to speak. Sandra Bland’s mom was leading them off with words of faith and grace.

And that’s when I thought about Donald Trump’s speech at his own convention last week, and about the overarching message of fear, intolerance, and negativity that has come to define his campaign. I thought about his calls to “make America great again” and the implied message there that this country is not great, and about how he said that only he alone could fix it.

What a contrast to these women on the stage, mothers who have suffered the deepest of losses, who were expressing gratitude to God and hope for their country.

That’s when I realized what has made me most wary of Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency.  Never have I heard him express any gratitude for anyone other than himself, and his immediate family. None for God’s grace, none for this country, and none for other people.

Donald Trump is a man who has just about everything he could ever want. Born into wealth, the breaks have always gone his way. Even when he has failed tremendously, he has walked away none-the-worse for it. He has had every privilege, and every advantage of a well-born American.

And yet, he believes only he is responsible for his greatness.

That should not have been surprising to me. This is a man who, despite his professed Christian faith, when asked about whether he ever seeks God’s forgiveness for his sins stated, “I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”

Donald Trump’s faith is his own, and only he and God know its depth, but as a Christian that is stunning to me. My own understanding of Christian faith is rooted in the fact that we are God’s beloved children, and yet time and again we mess up. The good news is that God acts through Christ to forgive us, turn our hearts back around, and set us back on the right path.

This is called grace.

picmonkey_imageI also believe that the only proper response to grace is gratitude. The only way we can possibly begin to say thank you to God is by living lives that reflect that gratitude. And so, we seek to love others and to make this world better for all not because we are great, but because God is great.

But if you have never acknowledged that it is God’s greatness, and not your own, that is amazing, then of course you will not be grateful. If you believe every good thing in your life has come to you because you are special and talented, and that grace has played no part in it, then how could you be?

You’ve never been repentant. You’ve never known what it is to be aware of your own failings. You’ve never understood that only God alone can fix it.

That’s when we fall into the most damaging of spiritual conditions: staggering narcissism, unquestioned entitlement, and belief in our own ability to do it alone.

Those are spiritually dangerous places for all of us, but they are even more destructive when they exist in those who would be leaders. The ungrateful leader is not aware of their ability to be wrong. They lack the wisdom that grace brings, and the sense of purpose that is tied to gratitude. They approach their work not with the humility that it demands, but with a cocky self-satisfaction that has the power to destroy those they lead.

There is a saying that those of us who are in recovery from addiction often repeat: a grateful heart will never drink. That means that a person who wants to stay sober must be aware of the grace they have received, live with real gratitude, and always give thanks to God for what has been done for them.

For one who seeks a position of leadership, that saying might read something like this: A grateful heart will never take for granted those whom I serve.

This country needs leaders who know that they have received God’s good grace. We need the launch codes to be in the hands of someone who is humble and wise. We need budgets that are written by just and merciful people. We need leaders who can speak with kindness and strength in the same voice.

We need leaders who live lives of gratitude.

I cannot tell you how to vote come November. That is your choice. But I can say that where there is gratitude there is neither intolerance nor mockery, fear nor exclusion, rage nor violence, grandiosity nor idolatry. Gratitude leaves no room for those things.

Note: All opinions on this blog reflect only my own thoughts as a private citizen, and not those of the institutions which I serve. 

The Church as Enabler: Further Thoughts on Heather Cook, and the Rest of Us

“Did you ever get a DUI?”

“No.”

“Were you ever arrested?”

“No.”

“Did you ever lose a job because of your drinking?”

“No.”

He looked at me confused for a moment, then said, “I don’t think you were really an alcoholic.”

“Really?” I said. “Because I do.”

That conversation could have happened pretty much anywhere. As much as the discussion on addiction has changed in recent years, too many people still cling to the stereotype of an alcoholic as someone who is a falling-down-drunk, lying in the gutter. The idea of a well-educated professional with a retirement fund never crosses their minds.

But this wasn’t just anyone asking me the questions. It was the counselor who was conducting my routine denominational psychological exam when I switched my ordination to the UCC. I had honestly written about the fact I was in recovery in my pre-interview paperwork, and I was prepared to talk about it. But here I was, at the center where prospective clergy for my denomination and several others were screened for red flags, and I was having to educate the one doing the assessment on what addiction looks like.

In my case there was no rock bottom crash. There was just the awareness that I was looking for answers at the bottom of a bottle, instead of from healthier places. Added to that was the knowledge that my extended family has had trouble with alcohol for generations. I was still a young adult when it became clear to me that I could either quit drinking then, with relatively little lost, or I could quit drinking years later, when I had managed to destroy everything.

Untitled copyI consider myself to be especially blessed by the fact that my family, friends, and clergy “got it”, and supported me. But I know that in the stories of others too often those same people become “enablers”. They help the alcoholic to justify their continued drinking by either refusing to admit there is a problem, being too scared to intervene, or, in the worst of cases, actively covering up another’s addiction.

Addiction is a family disease. And when a family member enables an addict, the entire family remains sick. That should hit home for those of us who are church members, because we often talk about the church as a large family. And there’s a hard truth we need to admit.

Our family has an addiction problem,

A few weeks ago I wrote about Bishop Heather Cook and who is qualified to be clergy. In the weeks since I have been struck by what has been revealed about what the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland did and didn’t know. On one hand we’ve been assured that the diocese had no knowledge there was an issue. Given the graphic description of Cook’s first DUI, complete with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit, a shredded front tire, and more, I don’t know how anyone could say that there was no evidence there was an issue. Add to that the most recent revelation by the diocese itself that other bishops had been concerned that Cook was drunk at a pre-consecration dinner, and it’s clear that the diocese had some inkling Cook had a problem.

Heather Cook is responsible for the death of Thomas Palermo. Nothing I am writing here should in any way be taken as an attempt to excuse her actions. But we in the mainline denominations, with our extensive theologies around systemic sin, must admit that there is more than enough responsibility to go around here, and the church bears some of it. Because far too often we have been enablers.

The research is incomplete, but it has long been acknowledged that clergy have high addiction rates. I believe this is especially true in mainline and progressive denominations that often put an emphasis on not being like “those Christians” who do things like ban alcohol. When I’ve suggested that maybe every clergy event does not need a cocktail hour, I’ve more than once been told, “We’re not like those Christians…we don’t believe anything is wrong with drinking.”

Neither do I. If you can drink safely, and are able to stop, then I say go for it. I don’t even mind being with people who are drinking. I’ve never had an issue with someone having a drink or two while we are out at dinner, or with sitting with someone who is having a beer while we talk theology. But when cocktail hours, or trips to the bar, become the main source of community and fellowship at wider church events, I begin to wonder how many of my colleagues might be walking a fine line between responsible drinking and addiction. And when I go to dinner parties and watch respected clergy drink to excess, and say things I know they will regret in the morning, I feel incredibly sad for them.

I don’t think you have to be in recovery yourself to feel the same way. As the national Episcopal Church prepares to gather this summer for their General Convention, Bishop J. Scott Barker of the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska has made a commitment to not drink during the gathering. Barker writes, “I’m mindful of the recent tragedy in Maryland, and the chance to make a small witness for delight in sobriety as a bishop of the Church. I note that in the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska so many wonderful disciples are in recovery and could use some support – and so many parish churches are hobbled by alcoholic family systems long in place.” (Read more here: http://nebraskaepiscopalian.org/?p=2578)

It should be noted that Bishop Barker’s stand is especially prophetic given the fact that others going to General Convention seem to be a bit tone deaf about the church’s public image problems around alcohol. For instance, the House of Deputies is holding a fundraising competition with a grand prize of a beer tasting: http://houseofdeputies.org/campaign-for-episcopal-relief-development-kicks-off.html Surely, if a denomination can’t take a step back from alcohol for at least a few months after one of their own prominent clergy kills someone while drinking, that is a sign of a problem.

So, how does the church move forward? How do we stop being enablers?

First, there has to be the will to change. And that will not come until people who have been touched in some way by addiction, either their own or that of others, speak up and say “enough”. Then, there has to be a willingness to tell the truth about how we have failed to address the crisis of addiction, both in our own ranks, and in the larger community. And then we have to start the work of healing.

We need to follow the examples of the legal and medical communities who have set up fair and rigorous systems for those who wish to get clean and sober. We need to provide clergy with a way to get help when they need it, without worrying that stepping forward and getting healthy will ruin their careers. We need to educate everyone from parish pastors to denominational execs to those who screen candidates for ministry. We need to talk to our seminarians about what addiction looks like, and how to take care of themselves. And we need to be willing to lovingly intervene when we see someone struggling, no matter how big their steeple may be, or how angry they might get.

Our country is in the midst of a full-fledged addiction crisis. We in the church, with our belief in new life, should be leading the charge for recovery and healing. But we can’t do that if we are too sick to even deal with the addiction crisis in our own house. Now is the time for our whole family to get some recovery. Because if we can’t look at what happened in Maryland and say “we’ve finally hit rock bottom” I am scared to death of what our next family tragedy will look like.

Water, Wine, and the Places that Need Filling: Sermon for January 20, 2013

We really should have listened...

We really should have listened…

Recently I’ve had occasion to think a lot about wedding receptions. We had a fairly small wedding, family and closest friends only, but that doesn’t mean that planning a reception was easy. You find a caterer, you negotiate a price, you pick a menu, and you stress out about whether or not there will be enough food.

When it came time to get our wedding cake, multiple friends gave us the same advice. They told us that we would be tempted, pressured even, to order a cake that the bakery said was big enough for every person at the reception to get a full piece. Our friends all told us to only order half of that. They said most people only ate about half a slice anyway, and others didn’t have cake at all, so a smaller cake always turned out to be plenty.

We were convinced they were wrong. We knew that as soon as we did that, there would be a massive run on cake that would end with half our guests getting none. And so, we ordered the big cake.

I was thinking about that when I read today’s Gospel. Jesus goes to a wedding reception in the town of Cana, and his mother is there. And she comes up to Jesus and tells him, “they’re out of wine”.

Now, maybe she wanted a glass herself, I don’t know, but the big issue here is not just that no one had wine. It’s that this was potentially humiliating for the couple who had just been married and their family. It reflected badly upon them as hosts, and opened them up to the ridicule of others. The fact Mary pulled Jesus aside was probably because she didn’t want the families to be embarrassed at their own wedding.

Mary already knew that there was something extraordinary about her son. I’m not sure she knew just how much so, but she knew he could do something to fix this. But when she tells him that the wine has run out, his first response isn’t “okay, I’ll fix this”. It’s, “Mom, why is this my problem? It’s not my time yet.”

His mom, like most moms, doesn’t take no for an answer. She doesn’t even respond. She just tells the servants to do whatever he tells them to do. And Jesus, maybe knowing he’s not going to win against his mother, tells them to fill up six large, stone jars with water. And then he tells them to draw some out. And when they do, it’s not water anymore, but wine.

Scripture tells us that when the chief steward tasted it he called the groom over and said “why did you keep the good stuff until now? Everyone knows you start off serving the good stuff and then, once everyone is drunk and they can’t tell the difference anymore, you switch over to the cheap stuff.” Sage advice from the Bible.

But more importantly, we are left with this: the first of the signs of who Jesus was, and this final line “and his disciples believed in him.” Jesus performs many more miracles over the course of his ministry, but this is the first. And it was the one that started to truly reveal to the ones around him who he was.

I confess that I read this a story today and I feel a little anxiety for the newly married couple. We were so worried about running out of food at the wedding, and this was our nightmare. We didn’t want to be embarrassed. That’s why at the end of our reception, despite our friends’ unheeded advice, someone sent us to the hotel with a box filled with over half of our wedding cake. And Heidi doesn’t even like cake.

We were so worried that what we had wouldn’t be enough, that we vastly overestimated our need, to the point that in the end a lot went to waste. Now, this is an extreme example, but I think it points to what we do in a lot of areas of our life. We worry that we don’t have enough. We worry that the cake will run out, or the wine will run dry. We worry that we won’t have enough money, or we won’t have enough time. We worry that our best won’t be good enough, or that we won’t make it through.

We worry so much that we often fail to see that we have more than we need.

Now at this point you might be saying, “but the people in this story…they didn’t have all that they needed. They ran out! This is a cautionary tale about not getting caught with too little.”

And that’s one way to look at it. But it’s not the only way. And, I would submit, it’s not the way to look at it if you want to see Jesus.

Jesus performs a lot of miracles in his life, but as miracles go, in a real way, this one wasn’t all that impressive at first glance. He didn’t feed 5,000 people. He didn’t raise someone from the dead. He didn’t heal the sick. He didn’t do anything that really transformed the world or changed lives. He just helped out a family that didn’t pick up enough wine at the store. Creating infinite wine is hardly the stuff that inspires discipleship.

But like I said, the real point here is not that they ran low on wine, and it’s not that Jesus can make more. If Jesus hadn’t been at that wedding, maybe it would have been a little embarrassing for the family for a little while. Or maybe not. Maybe they would have cut everyone off and said, “look, you all drank all the wine already…you’ve had enough.” Either way, we’re not talking about a crisis.

What we are talking about, though, is this: Jesus was there, and because of that scarcity became abundance.

Asking Jesus for more wine seems so trivial. Like asking Jesus for a parking space or praying that the ball will curve just enough that it makes it through the goal posts. But if you look at the miracles of Jesus, you find a common thread. Every time, the people thought that they had either lost something, or they didn’t have enough of something. They had lost life, they had lost health. They didn’t have enough fish, they didn’t have enough bread. And every time that they thought there was too little, Jesus transformed it and they ended up with an abundance.

This is just a common, everyday example that, if you ask me, may have had something to do with the fact that Jesus’ mother asked him to do it. And Jesus knew enough to listen to his mother.

And it’s an example to us too, especially those of us who are in the habit of buying enough cake to feed a small army. We tend to be the same people who worry we won’t have enough in the places where it really counts. Places like our spirit. Places like our hope. Places like our faith. It’s a sign that Jesus can create something incredible in those places where it feels like we have run dry.

Maybe you’ve experienced that. Maybe you have hit your rock bottom in another way. Maybe something in your life has reached the point of not being sustainable anymore. Maybe the problem wasn’t that you didn’t have enough wine, but that all the wine in the world couldn’t satisfy your thirst.

A lot of us here know something about that.

An acquaintance of mine reached out to me several years ago and told me they needed to stop drinking. They did everything you’re supposed to do. They went to meetings and went to counseling and did everything else. But the hard part for them was the faith piece. They kept being told to have a higher power, and they had grown up with the kind of religion that had, in my mind anyway, probably had something to do with driving them to drink. They wanted to do it on their own. They didn’t need, as they put it, the superstition and religious mumble-jumble. And they wanted to be sure I knew it.

Okay, I said. I’ve always wondered why people single clergy out to tell us why they don’t need God. I think they think it’s going to shock us or offend us or something. But at any rate, I said okay, and that they should do whatever works for them.

But gradually, they started to see that they couldn’t do it alone. That as much as they wanted to reach into their own stores of self-reliance and strength and resolve, at the end of the day they were coming up empty and it wasn’t quite working. Eventually, they opened themselves up to the possibility that maybe there was something bigger than themselves in the world, and maybe that something, whatever they called it, was going to provide the miracle. Maybe in their hour of greatest need, that something would fill them up, not with wine, but with strength where there was none. Serenity where there never had been any before.

They wouldn’t quite call that something God. Not yet anyway. I would, but they wouldn’t. And that’s okay. I’m not sure that the groom at the wedding in Cana ever figured out exactly what had happened either. All he knew is he had more wine.

But the reality for me is this: we all, regularly, know what it is to run out of wine at the worst possible time. We are all scraping the bottoms of our barrels in more ways than one. We are all facing shortages, physical and spiritual, and we are all afraid of losing more. And yet, we live. And often, we more than live, we thrive.

Whether we see it or not, whether we believe it or not, I think it’s because someone is filling us back up without us even knowing. I look back at the places in my life where I had absolutely nothing left in my own, and I see how even in that scarcity, God transformed nothing into a blessing. I have had my share of miracles, whether I know it or not. Whether I give God the glory or not. Whether I choose to believe it or not. The challenge for me is that when the steward comes back and says to me, “did you know all this wine was here? Where did all this good stuff come from?” That I don’t pretend that I’m somehow responsible for it. And that I don’t pretend like it just came from nowhere. That I open my eyes to the miracles around me.

I’ll close with this. Tomorrow is the day we observe Martin Luther King Day. As a college student in Atlanta, his hometown, I was always aware of his impact there. Some nights I would drive down to his old neighborhood, down to where his tomb is now, and I’d think about who he was, and how he did what he did. I would think about what it meant to have that kind of courage when everyday you knew there were people who literally wanted you dead. People who, in the end, got their wish. To keep on day after day like that is a miracle.

I think Martin Luther King was a great man. But what amazes me even more about his story is his faith. He was first and foremost a pastor, and more importantly, first and foremost a Christian. I have to believe that there were days when the wells were dry, and yet, someone filled him up again and again. He may have been a great man, but he believed in an even greater God. And in the end, I think that God worked miracles to fill him up again and again, and to keep him going when most of us would say “no way”. And throughout his life he gave the glory and the credit for that back to God.

You and I, we might not being making speeches on the Mall. We might not be inspiring social change on the level that he was. We might not be fearing for our lives everyday yet still moving forward. But we are all wrestling with our own fears. We are all pushing back against the voices that tell us there’s not enough. And we are all waiting for the miracles when our wells run dry. On this day I challenge you to do this: find the places where you have already been filled up. And then give God the glory. I promise you, your life will change because of it, and you will rarely be left with the fear of an empty glass again. Amen.