February 14, 2016
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
The first in a series of seven.
Sometimes we get stuck. And when we’re truly stuck, we need a little help if we are ever going to get free. Like Christopher Air.
He was three years old. He was having a great time at the Family Fun Arcade. He was fascinated with the game that has the mechanical arm with the pinchers that picks up the toy you want to win. I think it’s called the “Claw Crane”. He had his eye on a teddy bear, but after several attempts, he wasn’t having any success.
His mom ran out of coins. She left him for just a moment while she was getting change. When she came back, here is where she found him.
He had managed to squeeze through the flap that the prizes come out of. He got his teddy bear all right, but he didn’t have a very good exit strategy. He discovered it was easier getting in than getting out. Little Christopher was stuck.
When you are truly stuck, as he was, you need a little help to get free. In this case, the help took awhile. The owner of the arcade couldn’t find the right key. Christopher Air sat there for 30 minutes, with a crowd looking at him like he was an animal in the zoo. But eventually he got unstuck. He was set free. And the owner of the arcade even gave him the teddy bear he was so determined to win.
It’s a funny story, but it introduces a serious topic. Little boys trying to outsmart big arcade games aren’t the only ones who get stuck in life. We all do. And there is a long list of all the various ways in which we can get stuck. We can be stuck in our marriages, in our friendships, in our emotions, in our behavior, in our work, in our finances, in our habits, in our addictions. You may find yourself stuck in more than one way at the same time. And you might think there’s in no way to get unstuck. Because when you are truly stuck, there is no way on your own. You need a little help to get free.
One day there came into human history a man who had the power to help people get unstuck. There was an adulterous woman who was trapped in the guilt over her affair. There was a dishonest tax collector named Zacchaeus who was a slave to his own greed. There was a prominent religious leader named Nicodemus who was blind to his own self-righteous judgmentalism. There was a boatload of disciples paralyzed by fear. There was a Pharisee named Saul who was a prisoner to the anger that raged inside of him.
In every case they couldn’t free themselves, but in every case this man who came to earth with this strange and amazing power was able to set them free. He understood people. He understood how people love to be free but misuse their freedom. They think freedom means they get to do whatever they please, but they find out too late that freedom misused leads to slavery. We think we’re just having a good time, but we end up slaves to sin. And we’re stuck.
This man said, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). He was talking about himself. He was the Son. The Son of God. He set people free while he walked this earth. And today we begin a series of sermons on how Jesus sets people free still today.
Perhaps you are familiar with Bill W. That’s what he called himself. He was born in 1895. He died in 1971. In 1999 he was named by Time Magazine as one of the most important people of the century. They called him “the healer”. He wouldn’t have called himself that. The only reason he came to be known as “the healer” is because at a moment in his life when he was hopelessly stuck, he met the one true “healer”. He met Jesus.
Bill W was addicted to alcohol. His life was in shambles. He could no longer earn a living. He was spending most of his time either in prison or in the hospital. He had hit bottom. That’s when someone invited him to check out a small group of Christian believers.
They called themselves the Oxford Group. They were taking seriously what it means to follow Jesus. One thing they decided it means is being honest with each other about their personal failings. And honest with each other about their need for Jesus. Bill W found there the help he needed to get unstuck. And Alcoholics Anonymous was born. It was 1935.
There are twelve steps in Alcoholics Anonymous. These same twelve steps have proven successful in helping people break free from all sorts of bondage, not just alcohol. They don’t use the name Jesus in these steps. This is not a “Christians only” organization. They use the phrase “higher power”. They figure that won’t drive people away who don’t consider themselves religious. But when Bill W founded AA, it was because he had met Jesus, and he had found in Jesus the help he couldn’t find anywhere else.
When we’re stuck in life, our first instinct is seldom to look for help. Kind of like getting your car stuck in the snow. When your tires are spinning, the first instinct is to step on the gas. That makes your tires spin faster. But it doesn’t get you unstuck. It just gets you more stuck.
That’s the way it usually is. The more stuck we get, the harder we try to get ourselves free. And the harder we try to get ourselves free, the more stuck we get. The more we try to power our way out of our problem, the more we realize how powerless we really are. It’s very discouraging. But actually this is the first step to freedom. And it’s the step we are going to be taking together this morning.
These aren’t Bill W’s exact words, but this is the essence of what he wrote. It’s the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous:
We admitted we were powerless over whatever was causing us to get stuck, and that our lives had become unmanageable.
I’m going to invite you to read those words on the screen with me right now. “We admitted we were powerless over whatever was causing us to get stuck, and that our lives had become unmanageable.”
That’s the first step to freedom. It’s really nothing more than the acceptance of reality. Reality is that we’re not as powerful as we like to think we are. Under our own power, we are not capable of managing our lives. We are very capable of making a mess of our lives. And the harder we try to make it better, the worse it gets.
The best thing that can happen to us often seems at the moment like the worst thing. We’ve been doing just fine under our own power. Everything is pretty much great. And the reason is that we are so great. We have it all under control. We are gifted and talented. We are managing just fine without any help, thank you. And then the bottom falls out. We find ourselves up against something we cannot manage. This is too big. This is too powerful. We are too small. We are too weak.
It’s a horrible realization. But it might also be the first step to freedom. Because until we find something we cannot manage, we might never find God. Fortunately, life has a way of making sure something comes along that we cannot manage. When that day comes (it has for me, and I hope it has for you) the first step is not to try to power your way out of it. The first step is to accept reality.
Paul said, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:10). The song about Jesus that we learned as children has that same thought: “I am weak, but He is strong”. Weakness is strength. Strength is the ability to admit how weak we are.
This first step of Alcoholics Anonymous is the only one of the twelve that begins with the word “we”. As I was working on this message, it occurred to me that I had never been to an AA meeting, so last Thursday night I went to one. I discovered that the “we” of AA is very diverse. People from all walks of life. What unites them is not their strength or giftedness or resources or potential or education or beliefs. What unites them is their honesty and their weakness and their unmanageable lives.
Alcoholics Anonymous is a “me too” organization. What do I mean by that? Here’s what I don’t mean: “How are you doing?” “I’m fine.” “Me too.” / “How’s life going?” “Life is going great. Everything is wonderful.” “Me too.” / “How’s the family?” “The marriage couldn’t be better. The kids are all overachieving. In fact we’re being featured in the next ‘Christian Family’ magazine.” “Me too.” That’s not what I’m talking about.
Here’s what I am talking about. In fact, we’re going to do this together. I’ll go first. All you have to do is say, “Me too.” Ready?
“I’m a mess on my own. I am powerless over my own ego. My life is unmanageable. I need help.” “Me too.”
“Left to myself, I’m going to waste my one and only life in stupid ways. I’m going to love things and use people. Greed will be my master. I need Jesus.” “Me too.”
“Left to myself, my life will be a pathetic attempt to polish my outer image and keep everyone from knowing what an egocentric sinner I really am, so I can go to my grave a respectable fraud. I need God.” “Me too.”
That’s what draws us together! Not how wonderful we are, but how needy we are. “We admitted we were powerless and that our lives had become unmanageable.”
There was an AA meeting being held in a church basement. A nicely dressed young man was speaking. He was dealing with quite a few problems in his life and he was telling the group all about it. He was a good communicator. He was convincing. He was telling the group how other people were the source of all these problems. He was not to blame. People had been so mean to him, so unfair, so cruel. His life was a mess, that was true. But none of it was his fault. He knew what he had to do. He just had to take control of things and believe in himself.
One of the grizzled AA veterans turned to another and said, “I used to feel that way, too, before I achieved low self-esteem.”
It’s the opposite of what we’ve been taught. But it’s exactly what Jesus taught. Wealthy people, successful people, people filled with pride over how good they were were the people Jesus couldn’t do much for. It was the humble and the lowly and the sinners who knew they were sinners who Jesus could and did help. They were the ones who knew they were powerless and their lives were unmanageable. They were the ones who had achieved low self-esteem.
Have you achieved that yet? If your life is a mess, you’ve come to the right place. Welcome home. You have lots of company here. If your life is pretty much perfect, stick around here awhile and maybe if you’re lucky that will change. And Jesus will truly become your best friend. We all get stuck in life and when it’s bad, we all need help if we are ever going to get free.
When I went to that AA meeting, I observed what I had heard about before. They have kind of a ritual they go through. When Joe shares, he says, “My name is Joe and I’m an alcoholic.” And then everyone responds by saying, “Hi Joe.” What they are saying in other words is, “Me too.”
If somebody has attended these meetings for 20 years and hasn’t had a drink in all that time, he will say, “My name is Joe and I’m an alcoholic.” If somebody has fallen off the wagon so many times it’s impossible to keep track, maybe shows up at the meeting drunk, he will say, “My name is Joe and I’m an alcoholic.”
In either case, everybody will answer, “Hi Joe.” Not because it’s OK to keeping trashing your life but because they know that judgment and superiority get in the way of the freedom they are all seeking one day at a time.
We’re just going one step at a time today. Just step one. Not what we normally would be talking about on the First Sunday in Lent. Not trying hard to be better people. Not setting goals for self-improvement. Although we do have a bulletin insert with some suggestions for those who are eager to get past step one. But for today, simply this: “We admit our powerlessness over whatever is causing us to get stuck and that our lives have become unmanageable.”
They say step one is the only one of the twelve steps you have to do perfectly. They say that because as long as we think we can manage our own lives, we will manage our own lives. Or we will try. If it doesn’t work, we will try harder. And we won’t ever let God take control.
So let’s get this first step down. Let’s get it perfect. Then we’ll move on to the others. When we are truly stuck, we need a little help to get free. You do, and “me too”. I do and, all the people said, “Me too.” Let’s make this a “me too” church, where nobody has it all together, where everybody is welcome, where anything is possible. Because all things are possible with Jesus. “If the Son sets you makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
Lord Jesus, we just need to say that we need you. Some of us have a hard time saying that. We’d really rather be self-sufficient, self-reliant, self-contained. But that’s not reality. We need you. We all do. We always do. So right now, as I say the words of this simple prayer, may we all respond by praying this prayer together, line by line. Lord Jesus, we are weak. “Lord Jesus, we are weak.” Lord Jesus, you are strong. “Lord Jesus, you are strong.” Lord Jesus, come into my life. “Lord Jesus, come into my life.” My unmanageable, messed up life. “My unmanageable, messed up life.” And set me free. “And set me free.” Amen. “Amen.”