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Thursday, September 6, 2012

"We not only preach great things, we live them!"

 The Very Rev. Sylvia Sweeney
  Proper 17    9/2/12
James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

     Hi, I’m Sylvia.  I am not an alcoholic or a drug addict, but my friends with addictions have taught me a great deal about how we can all allow the trivial to become idolatrous in our own lives, and how important it is that we attend to the ways in which we may be doing just that.
     “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing.”
     When I was in my early twenties I was given the very graced opportunity to serve as a therapist in a 12 step based alcoholism treatment program for six months.  At the same time, I was dating a man in his early twenties who was just beginning to realize the role his father’s alcoholism was playing in his life and his family’s life.  In both those settings I watched the kind of courage, faith, and faithfulness it took to embrace and hold fast to a changed life. That time was a time for me of great learning both about myself and about what it means to live in a world where what should be the smallest part of life becomes the center of one’s life.  I also learned from these people what it can mean to one’s life to take stock, to be truthful with one’s self about who we have become, and to set one’s self on a path of becoming more than whom we have ever been before.
     That same passion for being more, becoming more…finding the best capacities and potentialities within ourselves that AA strives to instill in its members is also present in today’s epistle and today’s Gospel.  And this is indeed no accident.  The 12 Step principles were written and shaped by Christian philosophers and church leaders who wanted to be able to share with the world the deep truths they had found for their own lives about what it means to live a good and noble life.  For the author of today’s epistle, nothing is more real than the knowledge that Christ can make of us more than we are capable of being on our own. 
     There is this wonderful ancient quote from the church father Cyprian that says “We do not only preach great things, we live them!” And he penned these words to describe the extraordinary and heroic ways in which seemingly ordinary Christian people were participating in the miraculous through their own empassioned acts of love and charity.  They were able to live into this kind of miraculous holy love because of the life process of confession, surrender, and transformation that had led them to that place.  The process of conversion in the early church demanded of each person prior to their baptism that they take a full-on fearless look at themselves in the mirror, and then come to see themselves not just as they were, but as God could already see them—cleansed, strengthened, renewed and transformed.
     Part of what today’s Gospel is about is the recognition by Jesus and the Gospeller that the kind of religious cleansing that needed to happen in people’s lives had to go much deeper than a ritual washing of hands before meals.  It had to be a cleansing of the heart, of the psyche, of the whole person.         It had to be a cleansing that washed the filth and defilement out of one’s soul, and that it would only be after just such a complete, intense power wash of one’s own being that one could begin to claim a blessed God filled life. 
For Jesus, to be religious in the truest and most noble sense of the word meant to become transparently truthful about one’s own prayers, one’s values, one’s longings, one’s motives.  That kind of grueling life work sits at the core of a righteous life—not a weak, superficial ritualistic imitation of that true, deeply personal, spiritual life work. 
     Consider for a moment how Jesus must have felt to have his beloved disciples who had sacrificed everything in their lives to follow him be denounced because they did not carry water with which to make ritual ablutions before they ate whatever food had been offered to them from someone else’s charity. Consider for a moment how it must have seemed to Jesus for those who had so much to be so derisive, so dismissive, so condescending of those who had so little because of all they had already given up!
The 12 Steps invite all of us, not just alcoholics and drug addicts, to take the kind of look into the mirror that James describes in today’s epistle and Jesus demands in today’s Gospel.  It is the kind of honest, courageous look that shows us all that we can potentially be both good and bad.  I would suggest to you that the deepest challenge of the Gospel is not the challenge to accept the potential for evil that lies within us—the greater challenge is to recognize all our potential for evil and look beyond that to see what good we can, with God’s help, also accomplish. 
     All of us have pieces of our lives that are out of control.  Perhaps it is our alcohol consumption, perhaps it’s our need to protect another and keep them from harm’s way.  It may be our creeping fears of a world out of control, our thirst for power and safety, our love of food and creature comforts, our desire to be accepted, our unquenchable need to succeed or our near phobic fear of failure.  Wherever we are on our life path, seeing the truth about our lives and placing ourselves in God’s hands is the work that God invites us to.  And when we are up to that work.  When we trust God enough to be truthful with ourselves and one another, then we too can say as the members of the early church did, “We do not only preach great things, we live them!”   I invite you all to hear these words again for your own life and to enter into a day when you too are called to do great things!
1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

     We are all called by God each day to a new day, a new dawn, a new spiritual awakening.  May God be with you in your times of sleep and in your own new moments of awakening!

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