Unfortuantely I was unable to attend the Gathering in Buffalo due to conducting a funeral for one of our beloved parishioners. I understand it was a tremendous success - thanks are due to The Rev. Stephen Lane and the Diocese of Buffalo Recovery Team for their outstanding work.
In spite of not being able to attend the conference, on Sunday, June 29 I delivered a sermon in which I somehow tied together the Hebrew Scripture text to the topic of faith and to addiction and recovery. I post it here for your consideration( it has been amended a bit for this public forum):
Genesis 22:1-14 June 29, 2014
Psalm 13 Third Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 6:12-23 Year A
Matthew 10:40-42 Kevin M. Cross
Loving God, teach us through your words the path of discipleship and help us have faith in you and trust in your faithfulness to us.
The story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the more well-known passages in Hebrew Scripture. It is also one of the most terrifying texts in the whole of our Scripture. What makes it so memorable for me is the almost unfathomable obedience that Abraham shows to God. This is an obedience that overcame the powerful, positive bonds of familial love and relationship. I imagine you must wonder, as I do, how could a man even think about sacrificing his son - for any cause. And even more so how could a just and loving God ask one of his beloved to make such a terrible choice or ask him to commit such a violent act. The fact that God asks Abraham to commit an act that he, himself, allowed to be carried out with his own son, does not, in the least, make this any easier to accept. I have to be honest with you and say that I find this reading to be heavy and burdensome. What kind of God calls for a father to sacrifice his only son? However, the answer to that question is not any less shocking than that question alone. The answer is simple it is the kind of God who is willing to give up everything for the salvation of the world – of us.
What can this text teach us today? I think if we can get beyond the shock value, we might see that first and foremost this text is about faith. It is about the faith of Abraham and the strength of his conviction in the faithfulness of God. It becomes a story of great love that almost leads to heartbreak. Almost. However, by the end of the story it becomes a text that proclaims that God will indeed provide for the faithful and uphold his promise. As text tells us, after the angel of the Lord told Abraham to put down his knife, he saw a ram that the Lord provided to be sacrificed in place of his son. “So Abraham called that place "The LORD will provide"; as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided." (Say slowly) The Lord will provide.
Unshakeable faith in the promise that the Lord will provide, is as surely a sign of discipleship as any I can imagine. It is the kind of faith that is imbued with the belief that God will ultimately lead us down right pathways. Surely this story stretches the limits of such faith to an unfathomable level but it drives home the point that faith in God will always in the end lead to redemption and goodness.
Faith is a gift but for many it is a struggle to acquire and maintain. I cannot imagine possessing the amount of faith Abraham was capable of living out in his life. However, I do know that without any faith I would be lost. The world cannot provide what God can provide. This text is a key touchstone in Scripture for all of us who struggle with faith.
As I began to meditate on faith, I found myself drawn to thinking about the convergence of different contexts in which I witnessed the power of faith this past week. I am sure you are aware that we have currently many parishioners who are ill with very serious medical conditions. Three of our beloved have began Hospice care in the last two weeks. One of these beloved passed on this past week. These friends share in common living through times that surely must test their faith. Yet each person seems to have become increasingly faith filled in the face of great struggle. At a time when one might think it would be difficult to hold on to faith, they have become more firmly convicted in their beliefs that God is good and God will provide. Our friend passed on, firm in his belief that our God is a God of love.
This past week I was to attend the annual conference of Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church, an organization that I have led as President for the past two years. I would like to talk to you today about what I have learned about faith from my work with addiction and recovery.
I came to work in the field of recovery honestly - as the result of growing up with a family which was severely impacted by this disease. Let me stop for one moment and dwell on that word disease. Let face it addiction is a stigmatized illness. Too often it is viewed and judged by society and even the church as a moral issue or as a sign of personal weakness or depravity. As much as society has and continues to view alcoholism and addiction as issues of morality - that kind of thinking is dead wrong. Addiction is a disease. Just as we do not blame people with diabetes or heart disease or cancer for their conditions, we should not blame those suffering from addiction. Addiction is a disease with genetic, biological, psycho-social and spiritual components. It is, like many of those other health conditions, a disease without a cure. The one distinction that addiction has as a disease is that in my view it is the most deadly. You may be surprised to hear me say that. You may ask: “What about cancer? Isn’t that more deadly?” Let me explain why I say that addiction is more deadly to our health. It is because, addiction directly attacks the core of who we are, it attacks our essence, our very soul itself. A disease like cancer initially attacks the body. It may eventually attack our spirit, but addiction attacks the spirit immediately and directly. If we could personify this disease we could say that it acts with only one goal in mind and that it to take you over completely! Addiction attacks the relationships we have with others: friends, family God and even with our selves. Eventually the only relationship that comes to matter is that of the addiction. The all-consuming relationship with the substance or behavior replaces everything. Any concept of having a spiritual life, of having a soul is eradicated. On the journey of addiction, the idea that there could be a Higher Power, a God to whom everything belongs and is part of, becomes inconceivable.
If there remains any concept of a God, it is not uncommon that it is of a harsh, unforgiving God. Often this doesn’t seem to bear any relation to the image of God one grew up with or held during a healthier period of life. And, this image doesn’t seem to have much to do with prior concepts God. Instead this new image is a projection of the shame and guilt that one feels about their behavior or state of life and certainly it is a reflection of the shame that society places on the addict. In the end, given the breakdown that has occurred with relationships (self, others and God), any concept of God ceases to exist except perhaps for the focus of blame. If addiction does not start out as the consequence of a spiritual disease it quickly becomes one.
This is the reason I strongly believe that restoring a healthy spiritual life is critical to the recovery from the disease. Bill W. knew this when he put together the AA program. Fr. Sam Shoemaker, an Episcopal priest worked with Bill W. to put his ideas about recovery in a spiritual framework which has become the basis of all 12 Step Programs. 12 Step spirituality is built on the premise that we all have a spiritual life regardless of specific beliefs or religions. The spirit is who we really are. It is our essence, our core, our soul. It is who God created us to be. Based on our faith we know three key concepts about spirituality:
A healthy spiritual life is necessarily relational.
Relationships with other, friends, family and God are essential to spiritual life.
A healthy spiritual life is essential to a healthy life.
How does one restore a healthy spiritual life? I think that faith comes prior to having any specific belief system. Faith is an experience of God, a higher power that calls for a response of trust and self-surrender. It is up to those of us who are blessed with a healthy sense of a spiritual life to re-present God, Christ to those who struggle with faith. In Step Twelve of the program it states that “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” Therein is the beauty of AA. It is all about community and responsibility for self and for service to others. What better way is there to repay God than with what is truly God’s?
If we believe that God will provide then we have no option other than to give thanks – part of giving thanks is growing our relationship with God and helping others to do the same. God is present in every moment of our lives – the good and the not so good. God will not be shut out because God is in everything. Even in the face of addiction, God will find a way in. One of my favorite quotes is by Edwina Gateley, a friend and real modern day saint. She once said about God that “I am the God of the backdoor. I exist outside the boxes, barriers and walls you put up to separate based on differences. I look for the holes and cracks to slip through… Our task is not to seek God but to recognize God’s presence is already here… The world has already been saved. Your primary task is relationship with God.” Let us give thanks for our loving God who has promised “The Lord will provide.”