March 13, 2016
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
Jonah 1:1-3, Matthew 28:16-20
The fifth in a series of seven.
Southwest Airlines is noted for their funny flight attendants. Here are a few examples:
OK people, it’s open seating, just like at church. Saints in the front, sinners in the back.
If you smoke in this airplane, the FAA will fine you $2000, and at those prices you’d may as well fly Delta.
In the unlikely event of cabin depressurization, please secure your oxygen mask, and then decide which child you like better.
And then there’s one that goes with the sermon title, which is the whole reason for me pretending to be a stand-up comedian this morning. When the plane lands, the first words you normally hear from a flight attendant welcome you to whatever city you are now in and tell you what the local time is. At Southwest, they will sometimes use an abbreviated version. It goes like this:
“We landed. Get out.”
The twelfth step of Alcoholics Anonymous is a little bit like that. “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we sought to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” In other words, you’ve found the help you were looking for. Now get out and help someone else.
Where do you suppose this idea came from? It came from Jesus. All twelve of the twelve steps came from Jesus. This one came from that part of scripture known as the Great Commission. Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded” (Matthew 28:19-20). In others words: “Get out. Get out of your comfort zone, carry the message you have received with you, and then give that message to someone else who needs it.”
Some of you haven’t been here for the earlier sermons in this series. We’ve been working together on getting “Unstuck.” We’ve been using the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous as a proven method for getting unstuck from whatever has us stuck in life. It’s not necessarily alcohol that has us stuck. But it’s always something. Life has stretches, long stretches let’s hope, of smooth sailing. Things are going great. Life is good. But life also has its moments of hitting rocks and running aground and finding that we are so stuck there is nothing we can do to set ourselves free.
We’ve been introduced in this series to a man named Bill W. You may have wondered why we haven’t used his last name. His last name is well known and not a secret. But anonymity is valued highly in AA, hence the “anonymous” in their name. That’s why we have used the name he preferred to use.
We’re going to meet a couple of other people today who were also important in the beginnings of Alcoholics Anonymous. One of them is Sam Shoemaker. He was the pastor of Calvary Episcopal Church in New York City. We’ve mentioned the Oxford Group that Bill W was a part of. The Oxford Group was part of the ministry of Calvary Episcopal Church. Sam Shoemaker was their pastor. He is the one who introduced Bill W to Christ and who got him started on his pathway to recovery. That pathway included these 12 steps.
We first “give up”, as we accept that we cannot help ourselves and that only God can. Then we “clean up” as we do that searching and fearless moral inventory and admit to God, ourselves, and someone else the exact nature of our wrongs. Next we “make up.” That was last week’s sermon. This involves making amends to those we have harmed as Zacchaeus, the dishonest tax collector did. Finally, we “grow up”. And to grow up we need to get out and carry to others the message that has helped us.
Bill W learned the hard way about this “growing up” part of his recovery. He was staying at a hotel in Akron, Ohio. He had been working these 12 steps. He had been following Christ. He had been clean and sober for a long time. But this night he was lonely. It was the night before Mother’s Day. His own mother had deserted him long ago. Those memories got him depressed. So he was standing in this hotel lobby with the bar in plain view and he decided he was going to get drunk.
He panicked because he knew this was a life or death decision for him. He had come within an inch of drinking himself to death before. He knew he was one drink away from falling off a cliff. And he was going to fall of the cliff. He knew it. He couldn’t help himself.
At that moment, a very strange thought came into his head. He was teetering between life and death. It was looking like death was going to win, and then this thought took hold of him: “I need another alcoholic. I have to find another alcoholic. I have to tell my story to someone who needs the same help I need.”
God led him to another alcoholic. It was a hopeless drunk who became known as Dr. Bob. Dr. Bob listened as Bill W shared his story about the amazing journey he had been on and how close he had come to crashing and burning. But it was more than just sharing the story of his recovery. It was also sharing his faith. Bill W led Dr. Bob to Christ. And Alcoholics Anonymous was born that day. June 10, 1935.
Here is what we can take away from this. Here is where this 12th step comes in. Bill W didn’t seek out Dr. Bob in order to save Dr. Bob. Bill W sought out Dr. Bob in order to save himself. He was literally going to die unless he could carry this message that was his lifeline to someone else who needed it just as much as he did. And here is the take away for all of us: There is no healing without helping. The message that helps us truly helps us only when we carry that message to others.
But we don’t want to do that, do we? God’s people have never wanted to do that. It’s all through the Bible. Moses said he couldn’t speak. Jeremiah said he was too young. Isaiah said he was too sinful. Paul hated the Christians too much. But of all the stories in the Bible about resisting God when God tells us to get out and share God’s message with others, my favorite is the story of Jonah. Remember Jonah? God told him to go preach to the Ninevites. And so Jonah got on a boat that was headed in the opposite direction. God said go this way, so Jonah went that way.
I think you know the story. If you don’t, the classic short version comes from Dr. Seuss of all people. Here is what Jonah said when he refused to do what God had asked him to do:
I would not go there in a boat. I would not go there in a float. I would not go there in a gale. I would not go there in a whale. I do not like the people there. If they all died I would not care. I will not go to that great town. I’d rather choke. I’d rather drown. I will not go by land or sea, so stop this talk and let me be.
That’s pretty much what we all say when God asks us to get out of our comfort zone and carry God’s message to others. Even though it’s God’s purpose for our lives. It’s our destiny. It’s what we were placed on this earth to do. And still we tell God, “No thanks. I’d rather not.”
This is going to be a two-point sermon because this introduction has been way to long to get in three points. The first point is this: Talk to people about the love of God.
Some of you are saying, “I’d rather drown. I’d rather choke.” I know you! And the truth is I know myself. This is another “me too” moment. The main reason we resist talking to people about the love of God is because we don’t feel qualified to do so. We don’t have the right words. We don’t have enough knowledge. We don’t have the right training. After all, it’s the preacher’s job to talk to people about the love of God. And now here’s the preacher telling you he doesn’t feel qualified either!
Jonah eventually did do what God asked him to do. After the whale spit him out, Jonah went to the city of Nineveh. Not because he wanted to. He was a reluctant messenger. And he preached to the Ninevites what has to be the worst sermon ever preached. Here it is. This is the entire sermon: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). The end. No biting wit. No practical applications. No memorable stories. No three points. Just, “In forty days, you’re all toast.”
It’s a ridiculous sermon. And yet look at the results: “The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth” (3:5). It was a ridiculous sermon, but God was able to use it to save the city of Nineveh. Here’s the takeaway: It’s better to have an inadequate message about a glorious God than a glorious message about an inadequate God. Because God can take the best you have to offer even when it isn’t very good and use it gloriously for his purposes.
So what might it look like to talk to someone about the love of God? You probably don’t want to use Jonah’s script and say, “Forty more days and the United States will be overthrown.” Although with this presidential campaign we’re in the middle of, it makes you wonder. But I think we can do better than that. So how about this? Someone shares something difficult they are going through and you just say, “Could I pray for you?” Or someone is dealing with substance abuse and you say, “We’re talking about that in church right now. Do you want to come next Sunday?” They say, “Oh, I don’t know. We have little kids. It would be a pretty big hassle.” You say, “We have a great kids program. And not just on Sunday. We have Kids Stuff. You can just leave your kids here all week and pick them up next Sunday.”
Sometimes the best way to talk to someone about the love of God is by not talking at all, but by listening. By taking the time to hear what the other person has to say, without rendering judgment, without giving advice, but simply by caring enough to listen. That can be a very powerful message. A message without words.
One thing I can promise you. God is going to place people in your path this week who need to know that God loves them. You may feel inadequate, but God will make you adequate.
The second of the two points is this: Serve people with the love of God. It’s not just words. It’s not just listening. It’s deeds of compassion that convey the love of God.
Tony Campolo was in Nampa recently. He’s about the best story teller I’ve ever heard. I’ve heard him so many times I thought I’d heard all his stories. But the stories he told in Nampa were new ones. New ones on me. Including this one.
He was walking down Chestnut Street in Philadelphia when he came upon a homeless man. This man was filthy. He was probably an addict of some kind. Likely he was suffering from mental illness. He was yelling and screaming at people who weren’t even there, and then he turned to Tony Campolo who was there and he said, “Yo mister, you want some of my coffee?”
He was holding a styrofoam cup from McDonald’s. It was smudged on one side from the grease in his beard. Tony Campolo didn’t particularly want this man’s coffee. But he knew the right thing to do was to affirm his generosity. So he took a sip.
He said, “You’re being generous giving away your coffee to people you don’t even know! What’s gotten into you?”
The homeless man said, “Well, the coffee today is especially delicious. And I figure when God gives you something this good you should share it.”
Tony Campolo said to himself, “Oh no! I’ve been set up. This is going to cost me $10.” So he said to the homeless man, “You want something from me, don’t you?”
The man said, “Yeah. I want a hug.”
That wasn’t what Tony Campolo expected to hear. Or wanted to hear. He said he was hoping for the $10. But he gave this man what he’d asked for. He hugged him. The guy hugged him back. It turned out to be a massive bear hug. He couldn’t get loose. People were passing on the sidewalk and staring. This was getting embarrassing.
And then the embarrassment turned to awe and reverence as he remembered the words of Jesus. “I was hungry; did you feed me? I was naked; did you clothe me? I was sick; did you care for me? . . . I was that homeless man you met on Chestnut Street. Did you hug me? . . . For inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” At that moment he realized he was holding Jesus is his arms.
We normally think of it the other way. When we serve poor, unfortunate people, we are Jesus to them. We might be the only Jesus they ever meet. That’s a good thought, too. But that wasn’t the thought Jesus was conveying here. He said the people we serve are Jesus to us. When we hug or help or give of ourselves to someone in need, we are hugging or helping or giving of ourselves to Jesus.
Here’s how Dr. Bob put it.
The spiritual approach was as useless as any other approach when it came to finding power to be changed if you soaked it up like a sponge and kept it to yourself. The purpose of life is not to get; the purpose of life is to give.
When we get something, we think the only way to keep it is to hold onto it. Jesus taught something else. When we get something, the only way to keep it is to give it away.
Having found the help we were looking for, we get out of our comfort zone and we help someone else. We go, as Jesus told us to go, and we share the love of God with another person. When we do that, it helps two people. The person you helped and you.
We’re all stuck, God. Not a one of us has it all together. Whenever one of us confesses a sin, we can all answer in unison, “Me too.” And maybe that’s a blessing. Because we all need help and in the giving of help to each other we get the help we all need. So make us bold, God, inadequate though we may feel. For we trust not in ourselves, but in you. We trust that there is hope, there is healing, there is freedom from whatever has us stuck. And these are gifts, your gifts, not our accomplishments. We may be inadequate messengers but we have a glorious God. To you be all praise. Amen.