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This is a sermon that I wrote and delivered to my church when filling in for my Pastor. Although written for a congregation, it carries a message for all of us, especially those of us who are in Recovery.

 

Just as Isaiah was convinced that he was unfit to be seen by the Lord, we too can think the worst of ourselves…think that we are too unclean, too stained with sin to be considered worthy of God’s love and mercy. Isaiah said that he was a man of unclean lips and that he lived among people of unclean lips. But when an angel of the Lord touched his lips with a burning hot coal, the angel proclaimed that Isaiah’s guilt had been taken away and that his sins had been atoned for. It’s interesting to note that Isaiah makes no mention of pain or injury when the hot coal was touched to his lips and herein lays the miracle. Isaiah was by his own account an unclean and unworthy sinner, but by God’s own account, he was worthy of love, mercy, and forgiveness.

 

As I travel this spiritual journey I have found, just as many others have, that obstacles can get in our way…we can run up against roadblocks that prevent us from going further along our journey and have to follow detours that can take us onto a different path and in a different direction altogether. We can experience crisis of all kinds in our lives…personal, financial, physical, and spiritual. These roadblocks along our journey can take the form of life-threatening addictions, disabilities from disease or accident, a struggle with cancer, depression, anxiety, a bitter divorce, sudden unemployment, or the loss of a loved one. Like Isaiah, we can harbor deep guilt or resentment, bitterness, and anger…our reactions, attitudes, and behaviors, too, can present themselves as obstacles along our journey. We can turn away from God or reject God altogether because of our own self-loathing, sense of worthlessness, our own cynicism, ridicule, and doubt. We can find ourselves feeling as if we are victims of a life so painful that we cry out in anguish. We can find ourselves so consumed with our own problems of the minute that only the most immediate and readily available form of help will do for us. For some of us, this may be an escape into wishful thinking..It’s so easy for us to think in terms of ‘If only’…If only I can find some more money…if only he would just listen for once…If only the doctors could find out what’s wrong…If only I could stop…If only he could stop…and so on. For some of us, we may become argumentative and overcome with anxiety. For others amongst us, we may turn to addictive behavior finding comfort, peace, escape and excitement in gambling, spending, food, sex, drugs, or alcohol. This tendency to focus on just our problem of the moment and nothing else forms a roadblock on the journey to our spiritual unification with God…but is it really a roadblock? Or is it just another twist and turn along our faith journey that will bring us back onto the path to God…and to a deeper understanding and deeper commitment to our own personal faith?

 

There are times when problems and tragedies can literally take all of the meaning away from our lives, when day-to-day living is just too painful to endure, when despair and hopelessness are all that we feel and we see no difference between day and night. Such a time can make us feel as if our lives have suddenly stopped in a place of pain and there is no way forward and certainly no way backward…there is simply no way out. Self-esteem and the way that we visualize ourselves can bring us to dislike ourselves…to hate ourselves…to be at war with ourselves…and to want to destroy ourselves. Certainly we can feel unworthy of love…love of ourselves, love of others, and love of God. It’s at this time when we are suffering in a most human way that we can find ourselves transformed in a most spiritual way. Reverend Howard Thurman wrote that ‘(God) is felt as being with, in, and among the struggling elements of my experience. Then, out of the midst of these, His Presence emerges and becomes One who stands by my side. It is then that I am lifted up and strengthened.’

 

While doing volunteer work in one of the men’s maximum security prisons here in Connecticut, I regularly attended substance abuse rehabilitation meetings with inmates who were convicted of murder and violent assault associated with drugs and alcohol. It was in these meetings that I saw first hand what I could only explain as being the raw spiritual material that God uses to create those who have been forgiven. I sat alongside men who had been involved in gang shootings, attempted murders, beatings, and violent robberies listening to their stories and watching as they occasionally broke down and cried in anguish knowing, perhaps for the first time, they were standing at the greatest crossroads of their lives…the crossroads between being truly lost and being truly found. In sharing some of his painful story, an inmate told of seeing his young son looking somewhat thin and sickly when accompanied on a visit with the inmate’s wife. He later learned that his son was going without food or medical attention at times because the inmates’ wife was using whatever money was available to buy drugs. The inmate began sobbing. He said that he had thousands of dollars in the bank but couldn’t give his son a cent to help him because he was in prison…and that his son was paying the price for his father’s crime. I found myself leaving the prison at times thanking God for what He had shown me…and taught me…about roadblocks along our faith journey, even if they aren’t my own.

 

I have come to view these life-stopping experiences as being more than simply roadblocks, especially because I have faced them in my own life and have witnessed them in other people’s lives. They can also be detours…ways that are shown to us that take us around and away from the edge of a cliff…as a route away from danger and as a way of understanding a crisis in our personal lives. I’ve found myself at times of personal turmoil asking God just what it is that I’m being taught. What lesson am I being presented with that is hidden inside of this roadblock? What is God asking me to look at in a different way now that my life is so completely focused on my own pain and suffering? We may come within inches of the very edge…have the gun in our hand and pointed at our head or be living with one foot in the gutter and one hand on the bottle. We may be criminals or sinners in a way known only to ourselves, to another human being, and to God, or we may be living in such an out-of-control manner that death seems like the only way out of the insanity and pain of our own life.

 

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus told Nicodemus that Flesh gives birth to flesh, but Spirit gives birth to spirit. When we find ourselves face down at our most desperate crossroads, we need only to look up and see the Cross of Forgiveness and Healing before us. It is at this time that, as Reverend Thurman wrote that, out of the midst of such seemingly impossible struggle, ‘His Presence emerges’. When we bring our sickness, bring our broken-ness, our addictions, our acting-out, our behaviors, bring our heartbreak and sorrow, our resentment, fear, and anger, bring our crimes and our sins to God, honestly and directly, we can then have our lips touched by a burning coal and know that we are forgiven. We then reach a spiritual turning point and the moment when Spirit gives birth to spirit, when God’s own Presence emerges and we can take the first step in a new direction. We find that by surrendering and giving up our struggles and turning our will and our lives over to the care of God, of Christ, and at The Cross, we are taken by the hand and led away from the edge of the cliff and find within ourselves a deeper faith and meaning. Our lips are touched with a burning hot coal and we then know that we are forgiven and that we are truly worthy of God’s own love. If we look back to where we have just been, we can see that we haven’t been up against a roadblock at all…but have had to take a detour instead…a detour with lessons to be learned and faith to be nourished as only life and faith can teach us and nourish us…a detour with signs that have pointed the way back onto our journey toward unification with God and a re-birth into a New Spirit.

Edited by Russ
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Russ,

 

Excellent sermon. It must be one the most challenging kinds of volunteer work, spending time with prison inmates. A generous gift.

 

"There is no greater vocation on earth than to be called to heal and to cast out demons." --Paul Tillich

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