Can I tell y’all a secret?
Not sure that’s the best way to start a sermon,
Confessing a secret at the very beginning,
But I do want you to know that I’m being honest with you,
And honesty requires a willingness to be vulnerable,
So here goes…
Many years ago I was a parishioner and Acolyte Master,
At St. Anne’s, Tifton. I loved my time there and remember it fondly.
But the first time I walked into St. Peter’s,
Into this magnificent space,
My first thought was that whoever designed it,
Had at some pointed walked into St. Anne’s, Tifton, looked around,
And said, “Yeah, this. Only bigger and much nicer.”
It is a wonderful building, and I know that y’all are doing wonderful things from it,
I am thankful that St. Peter’s is here,
And I am grateful to be here with you today,
To celebrate the gift of Recovery with you.
If you haven’t read your bulletin yet,
Allow me to introduce myself.
I am The Rev’d Kevin Kelly,
Rector at St. Michaels and All Angels,
Your humble neighbors in the next parish north of here.
Several times a week, though, I introduce myself in a different fashion.
I say, “My name is Kevin, and I am an alcoholic.”
Actually, that’s not quite true –
I said I was gonna be honest with you.
What I really say is, “I am an alcoholic; my name is Kevin.”
I say it that way, instead of the “normal” way,
Because the way I see it,
If I ever forget that first part, then the second part doesn’t really matter.
Over the next few minutes, I want to talk to you about alcoholism and recovery,
And I hope to do so while at the same time remaining faithful,
To what today’s Scriptures have to say to us.
I’m talking about this today, out loud,
In this magnificent space,
Because too often conversations about alcoholism and recovery,
If they happen in church at all,
Happen only in the parish halls and the undercrofts,
Not in the “main sanctuary.”
There is still often great shame around addiction and recovery,
Both for the alcoholic, the addict,
And also for their families and friends.
This is the fourth congregation in the diocese where we’ve held these conversations,
And at every one, I’ve heard the same thing from the folks who took part –
I never imagined we could have such an honest conversation about this in church.
Hold on, because we’re going to today.
I admit that I noticed right away the irony of having this Recovery Sunday today,
Given today’s readings –did ya notice?
They’re all about vineyards.
From the prophet Isaiah,
“Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;”
It’s a lovely image that evokes all the joys one associates with luscious grapes,
And wine of exquisite vintage.
It speaks of the kind of drinking normal people do,
And the kind that alcoholics are convinced we can do again,
Except we can’t.
We believe we can, and we really want to “get it under control,”
But the sad truth about alcoholics is that we’ve totally lost that control,
And once it’s gone, there’s no getting it back.
We can’t return to that happy, carefree joy of a glass of wine or a cocktail,
We can’t work our way back into the fantasy of those first few verses.
No, it’s the second part of this reading,
That really applies to us.
“He expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.”
We always expect that things will be different,
That we will be different, somehow, this time.
We expect the sweet grapes of that good vintage,
But we always end up with wild grapes instead,
Bitter and awful, that leave a sour taste,
In the mouths of everyone who knows us.
If we go on,
We see Isaiah has still more to say to us –
“What more was there to do that I have not done?”
In other words,
What do you want from me? Why can’t you just leave me alone.
I’m fine. I don’t have a problem.
“I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;”
If you know or live with an alcoholic,
You know it isn’t some vineyard on a hill that gets trampled down,
Or devoured, or made into a waste.
It’s our lives,
And more often,
The lives of those who love us.
It’s what we do, although we don’t want to,
We don’t mean to,
And we’re always sorry afterwards –
We lay waste to the world around us,
And the consequences of our behavior seem most often,
To fall not on us, but on those around us,
Who’s only fault was in their association with us.
If what I’m saying makes sense to you,
If it sounds familiar or resonates at all,
Then my guess is you’re either someone like me,
Or you’ve known someone like me intimately.
Alcoholism is a terrible scourge. It slowly destroys the drinkers,
And their families, often quietly and invisibly.
The people around us usually see the problem long before we do,
They try to help – they plead, beg, nag, yell, leave –
They’re so desperate for something to work, for something to help,
And their suffering continues until something happens that opens our eyes.
Too often, by the time that happens,
They’ve had more than they can take –
When we finally realize we need the help they’ve been offering for so long,
We find we’ve pushed away all the people that could and would have helped.
Meanwhile, our families, the people who love us the most,
Who just want “us” back the way we were,
Live with the secret shame of our addiction.
It isolates them and terrifies them,
They see the walls coming down,
The live with the destruction we cause.
And usually, they carry the pain of it all by themselves.
This is what we do,
This is what alcoholism looks like.
Not someone living in a box under a bridge,
With a bottle wrapped in a paper bag,
Sticking out of the pocket of a ragged overcoat.
No, we look much more like those tenants in the landowner’s vineyard.
We have the same selfish expectations,
The same sense of entitlement,
The same arrogance and disdain for how things should be done.
All we know is our own desires,
Our own appetites,
Our own insatiable thirst for more.
No matter what we have or how much of it,
We always think we deserve more and better.
When someone tries to help, tries to reach out to us,
We respond just like they do,
Everyone God sends us to help,
We mistreat and sent away, or worse.
Were we left to our own strength, our own abilities,
To save ourselves,
We would truly be hopeless.
But the incredible truth of recovery –
What I really want to tell you about today,
Is that we aren’t left hopeless or helpless,
There is a solution,
One that I’ve found and that countless others have as well.
The solution lies not within us,
But solely in the grace and loving kindness of God.
This is the incredible power of God in our lives,
And it’s a surprise to all of us when it happens.
Because look at the Gospel story again,
Look at the parable,
When Jesus asks what the landowner will do
What should he do?
How should God respond?
“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death,
and lease the vineyard to other tenants.”
That is what we deserve,
But it’s not always what we get.
Not if we do manage to get clear about that first part I mentioned earlier,
If we can see ourselves for who we truly are,
What we truly are,
If we can admit that we are powerless,
Or, as that glorious collect in our Prayer Book says,
That we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves,
We see the dramatic, incomparable response of the God of our salvation.
We see God do for us what we could never do for ourselves,
We see God lift us up from the graves we have dug for ourselves,
And stand us on our feet again.
We see God deliver us from the bondage of sin and death,
And restore us to a life of grace.
There is hope for the alcoholic and for the people close to them,
And that hope lies in God alone.
Now I’m not saying that all we have to do is believe in Jesus,
And just pray a little harder,
And we’ll be just fine.
Huh – if that were all it took,
We would have done it long ago.
We have to realize, to know,
That we are dead – dead or good as,
Dead and in desperate need of resurrection,
Ready to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.
Only then, when we are honest,
When we are clear about our inability to fix or save ourselves,
Do we see what God can do for us.
“Restore us, O God of Hosts,
Show us the light of your countenance,
And we shall be saved.”
Then we see God not as the angry landowner,
Giving us exactly what we deserve,
But as the God of Ezekiel and the Valley of dry bones,
When he tells Ezekiel, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy!
Come from the four winds, O breath,
and breathe upon these slain, that they may live!”
We see the God of the tomb in Bethany,
When Jesus calls out in a loud voice,
“Lazarus, come forth! Unbind him, and let him go!”
We see the God of the Prodigal son,
Whose father rushes out to meet him while he is still far off,
Who doesn’t even wait to hear his apology before he throws his arms around him,
And claims him as his own son again, who was dead but now lives.
We see the God “of unchangeable power and eternal light,”
Who makes us “see and know that what had grown old is being made new,
And what was cast down is being raised up.”
We see the God that Jesus tells the disciples to go tell John the Baptist about in prison,
“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard,
the blind see,
the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed,
and the dead are raised.”
See, that’s the business we’re in,
Raising the dead,
And that’s the God we proclaim,
The One who can raise the dead,
And the One who will.
And these are the stories we need to tell,
Because there are so many who need to hear them,
Who need to hear about this God that we have found.
And this is the place where we need to tell these stories,
In magnificent places like this one,
And not just in parish halls or undercrofts.
We need to tell them in the open,
In the fresh air and in the daylight,
Because the dead are still lying in their tombs,
And their loved ones – who knows what it means to be a leper,
Are still hiding in their shame.
And it is up to us,
Who know the Living God,
Who live in the power of Christ’s resurrection,
To say to them,
Come to us, come with your burdens so heavy you think they will crush you,
Come with your pain and your fear and your shame,
Come you who are weary and heavy laden,
with just trying to make it through one more day.
looking like everything is okay.
Come and let us love you back to health,
Come and let us show you the light of God’s countenance,
Come and be restored.
That can happen,
I watch it happen again and again,
I saw it happen in my own life and in the life of my family,
When a few people did not turn away from us,
Like what we had was catching,
But who stood with us,
Who believed for us when we couldn’t,
And who carried us when we could not walk ourselves.
Who showed us the love of God,
When all we saw was the destruction and the ruin of the vineyard around us.
This is a wonderful building, and I know that you are doing wonderful things from it,
But there are people dying all around us,
Dying from the ravages of addiction,
And they have no idea that there is any place in a church like this for them.
If they’ve heard of God,
They’ve heard in such frightening terms that they want nothing to do with him,
Or if they’ve heard of the God we know,
They cannot imagine that that sort of God would love them.
But we can show them different.
We can show them that there is hope,
That there is life,
That there is a place beyond shame and fear and reproach.
We can show them that what we have IS catching,
Because what we have is resurrection,
Resurrection and life everlasting,
Not only in the life to come but in this life as well,
Given to us and to all who want it,
By the God whom we know,
And by his Son, whom we follow.