February 21, 2016
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
The second in a series of seven.
(Video Link: La Brea Tar Pits)
You get stuck in that tar and you struggle to get out but you can’t get out . . .
We’re continuing our Lenten series today on how we get stuck in life and how we can get unstuck. Last week we started with the most basic truth. When we are truly stuck, the more we struggle, the more stuck we will be. So the first step in getting unstuck is to admit that we can’t free ourselves. It’s to admit that we need help.
We talked about Bill W who back in 1935 was stuck in a very serious drinking problem. And we talked about a group of Christians called the Oxford Group who came along for him at just the right time. They couldn’t help him get unstuck, but they could introduce him to someone who could. They introduced him to Jesus. This is how the organization we know today as Alcoholics Anonymous had its beginnings.
The twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are not just for alcoholics. They are for all of us, however we might find ourselves stuck. We’re working on the assumption in this series that all of us are stuck in our lives in one way or another. Which I think is a pretty safe assumption.
This morning we are going to focus on Step 4. We started last week with Step 1. That’s admitting that we are powerless and that our lives have become unmanageable. Steps 2 and 3 have to do with our “higher power”. That’s AA talk for God or Jesus, because they want to make their organization as inclusive as possible. We admit we cannot help ourselves and that only help from above can. These steps are crucial, but they mainly take place in our heads and our hearts.
Step 4 is where the rubber meets the road and we start getting some traction. Step 4 is where the real work begins. Step 4 is where we get real. “We resolved to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
There’s a saying that is often heard in recovery work. “Denial is not a river in Egypt.” We all have a tendency to deny things about ourselves that we would rather not face. Or to minimize these things. We say, “It’s really not a problem.” Or, “It’s really not a serious problem.” Or, “Everyone has issues. I’m not the only one. Why all the attention on me?” Step 4 forces us to get real and to be honest about ourselves.
Jesus actually did this for people who weren’t ready to do it for themselves. Read Matthew, chapter 23. The whole chapter is a “searching and fearless moral inventory” on the scribes and the Pharisees. He really lets them have it.
Another example would be the woman at the well in John, chapter 4. He asks her to go get her husband. She says she has no husband. Jesus says, “You are right in saying you have no husband for you have had five husbands and the man you are with now is not your husband.” Ouch!
He told the rich, young ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor. He didn’t tell anyone else to do that. Why him? Because Jesus knew the real truth about this man’s soul. His riches had become his god. And he was in denial about this. That’s why his “face fell and he went away sad because he had great wealth” (Mark 10:22).
Jesus knew that when our insides and our outsides don’t match, we are in trouble, whether we know we are in trouble or not. We are in trouble because we are in denial. We aren’t being honest with ourselves or with others or with God. When that happens it’s almost impossible to get unstuck. That’s why the hard work of Step 4 is necessary work. “We resolved to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
There are three words in this I want us to look at. The first word is the last word. “We resolved to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” We’re pretty good at doing moral inventories on other people. We’re experts at that. We can spot their faults and flaws and shortcomings quite easily. In fact, we can keep ourselves entertained for long stretches of time just by telling and hearing dirt on other people. It’s called gossip. There are some very talented people on the staff of each of our dwindling number of presidential candidates who get paid a lot of money to dig up dirt on other presidential candidates.
Jesus had something to say about this. “How can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye” (Matthew 7:4). Jesus used the word “hypocrite” to describe those who are always finding fault with others but are never willing to take a long, hard look at themselves. So the word is “ourselves”. We’ll let other people do their own moral inventories. That’s their business, not ours. But we will “make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
The second word that we need to look at is the word “searching”. “We resolved to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” That word too is there for a reason. It’s there because we’re going to have a natural tendency to do a moral inventory that is quick and superficial.
It’s kind of like when we would ask our children to wash their hands before dinner. They’d hurry into the bathroom and run a little water over their grimy, sticky, filthy hands and then run back to the dinner table and think their hands were clean. It takes time to get dirty hands clean. And effort. And soap.
David writes about this kind of deep searching into his soul in our scripture for today. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).
This passage reminds us that it’s only with God’s help that our “searching” will go deep enough. We have so many blind spots. We are so quick to make excuses and to blame others and to justify ourselves. But when our insides and our outsides don’t match, God knows and God will let us know. David’s prayer is our guide: “Search me O God, and know my heart.” And then we listen to what God tells us, even when it isn’t what we want to hear.
One sign that we are going deep enough is that we will start apologizing to people. Especially people we love. Love does not mean never having to say you’re sorry. Love means saying you’re sorry a lot. And meaning it. Often the reason we don’t say we’re sorry is because we don’t think we have any reason to be sorry. But when our moral inventory is truly deep and searching, we will discover many reasons to be sorry.
The third word we need to spend some time with is “fearless”. “We resolved to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
What we’re talking about today takes courage. It’s scary to probe that deeply. That’s why we’re so good at denial. It’s a self-defense mechanism. It protects us from the pain of self-discovery.
And just as God helps us to see what we otherwise couldn’t see, God also helps us know there is nothing to fear. Step 4 follows Step 3 which says: “We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” If we’ve really done Step 3, the fear in Step 4 goes away. We’re not just turning our will and our lives over to God, but to “the care of God”. God cares. God is not one more reason to be afraid. God is on our side. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)
We have nothing to fear as we are alone with God and working on our searching and fearless moral inventories. Nothing we put on paper is going to surprise God. Everything we put on paper is something God can and will help us with. With God on our side, we can be absolutely fearless!
Fearlessness is important, because fear can do a number on these moral inventories. Fear will push us into one of two attitudes that can get us stuck again even worse than before.
The first of these attitudes is despair. We can look at the truth about ourselves and get so discouraged we want to give up. Our fragile self collapses on itself under the weight of those words we just wrote on our notepads.
It’s important to remember that, however far we might fall short of where God wants us to be, what God tells us in Ephesians 2:10 remains true: “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” God handcrafted everyone of us and then stepped back and said, “That’s good! That’s very good! That’s exactly what I meant to create!” We’re all different. It would be pretty boring if we weren’t. And scary. That would be a plot for a real scary movie, everybody on earth looking exactly the same. We’re different. But we’re the same in that God loves us all the same, and God created us all just the way God intended to create us. So there’s no reason to feel despair when we take a long, hard, honest look at ourselves.
The second harmful attitude that fear can drive us to is self-righteousness. Self-righteousness comes from being so afraid that there might be anything wrong with us that we are offended by the very idea.
Those scribes and Pharisees whose moral inventory Jesus had to do for them in Matthew 23 had a bad case of self-righteousness. They were pretty much perfect They were all singing that old Mac Davis song: “Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way.” But of course, they weren’t perfect. They were far from it. Jesus could see that. They couldn’t. Why couldn’t they? Because of their fear. It’s scary to be honest about your imperfections when your self-worth is based on being “perfect in every way.”
But if our self-worth comes not from our own worthiness but from knowing and trusting that God is on our side, then that fear can melt away. Then we can be fearless. Then it’s not scary to do what Paul tells us to do: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with mature judgment” (Romans 12:3).
What this is all leading up to, as I hope you realize by now, is the completion of a “Searching and Fearless Moral Inventory.” As a matter of fact, you may have noticed that we gave you one today as a bulletin insert. I really hope you haven’t filled it out already. If you did, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t very “searching”. There isn’t room for that the way we printed the insert. The idea is that this is something you will take home with you and you will find some uninterrupted time this week to give it the attention it deserves. I say this week, because I know that if you don’t get right to it, you may never get to it. But it very well could take you more than a week to complete it. It gets a little intense. If you’re like me, you’re going to need a break from this now and then. You might want to go for a walk or whatever it takes to clear your head and get yourself ready to continue.
I’m going to close today with just a few comments that I hope will help you as you complete the inventory. First, what it is. It is a fact-finding and fact-facing instrument. It’s designed to help you “get real” as you both identify and confront those areas of your life that have caused you to get stuck.
The instrument we are using is greatly abbreviated from the one that comes from Alcoholics Anonymous. But it uses their same four broad categories: resentments, fears, harms, and sexual conduct.
A few quick comments on each of the four. First, resentments. You’re asked: “Toward whom am I angry? Why am I angry? How does the anger show up in my life? Where am I to blame?” Don’t skip this one. Don’t give the “Christian” answer: “Oh, I’m not angry at anyone!” I remind you the sermon title for today is “Get Real”.
Next, fears. Just about every sin you and I commit has fear as its underlying reason. The questions for this one are, “What am I afraid of? Why am I afraid? How does fear show up in my life? What do I normally do to numb the fear?”
Then we will move to harms. “Where are the places in my life where I have harmed people? Who have I harmed? What did I do or fail to do? What motivated my action? What should I have done instead?” Be careful with this one. The general rule is that the harm we think we have done is only the tip of the iceberg. We all have tendency to be hyper aware of the harm other people have done to us and totally clueless about the harm we have done to them.
Finally, sexual conduct. It just got real quiet in here. Our sexuality is a powerful part of who we are. It’s a wonderful gift from God, but it can be abused and can do great harm to ourselves and to others. Here are the questions on this one: “Who did I engage in inappropriate sexual conduct with? What did we do? What was the exact nature of my wrong? What should I have done instead?”
There are many different tar pits that can catch us and trap us and hold us. There are many different ways in which we can get stuck. When we get stuck, we have some choices. We can give up and stay stuck. We can struggle on our own, and find that the more we struggle the more stuck we get. Or we can accept the truth that when we’re really stuck, only God can set us free.
Except God doesn’t do all the work. It’s a partnership. It’s a cooperative effort. And our part involves getting real. We find and we face the facts about ourselves that are so easy to deny. We do a searching and fearless moral inventory. We offer our best and most honest work to God. And we feel the grip of whatever has us stuck begin to let go.
Help us God, as we do this work. Thank you for the gift of failure. For only when we’ve truly hit bottom does any of this begin to make sense. Only when we rid ourselves of the illusion that it’s not so bad and you’re not so necessary. It is that bad and we need you desperately. Help us as only you can help us to get unstuck. In Jesus’ name, Amen.