Rev. Lois Annich’s sermon Surrender! begins at the 38 minute mark.
What has your experience of Lent been like so far? As some of you know, this is one of my favorite seasons in the church year. I love the fact that as we look deeply and intentionally into ourselves, study, pray, and do acts of justice and mercy we are reminded of those in the early church whose self-examination prepared them to join themselves to Christ in baptism on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter.
Through the process of addition and subtraction this Lent–taking on new practices and letting go of those things that enslave us–we’ve been responding to Paul’s appeal to be transformed, to come back to our baptismal identity as God’s precious, beloved children. You may notice that the scriptures Karen just read are the same ones we read on the first Sunday of Lent–the baptism and temptation of Jesus and Paul’s call to live as counter-cultural people. As I said that first Sunday, in Jesus’ baptism and time in the wilderness with the wild beasts we find the strength to enter into our own dark spaces because God has also claimed us in baptism and promises never to let us go.
We’ve ventured into some of those dark spaces over these last weeks–the distorted self-images that make us feel superior to others; the shame that causes us to feel like no selves; the resentments that destroy our relationships and peace of mind; and the rigid, stuck ways of thinking that block the movement of the Spirit in our lives. Today we consider what it means to surrender, to allow God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
We preachers often preach what we need to hear, and I confess that I am convicted–busted as my kids might say–by the topic of surrender. I was raised by a mother whose lists had lists, whose holiday dishes were laid out days before with notes in them as to what vegetables went where, whose lesson plans as a teacher were impeccable. I was pretty sure she could command the tides or make the trains run on time. But there was often a sense of anxiety in our household–a kind of feverish pressure to do our best work, be responsible, and serve the common good. As a result, the demons of perfectionism and hyper-responsibility that were part of that environment and are still part of my DNA have been my lifelong companions
For the longest time whenever I thought about the word “surrender” all I could think of was that scene from Wizard of Oz see in which the Wicked Witch of the West flies through the sky, slowly spelling out her intimidating message in dark plumes of smoke, “Surrender, Dorothy!” This image haunted me as a child, so much so that for years I was pretty sure the Wicked Witch of the West was living in my attic, just waiting to snatch me and make me her captive. How about you? When you think about the word “surrender” what images or feelings pop up? Do you think of giving in to monsters or demons? Do you think of failure? Do you think of soldiers giving up a fight in humiliation and defeat?
The thought of surrender is an odd thing. I want to do my best for God, and I know you do too. We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t looking to live just, meaningful and godly lives. We come equipped with a variety of magnificent gifts that we gladly offer in service to the vision of peace and justice God has laid on our hearts. I don’t think anyone here would suggest that we should be mediocre or disengaged people, especially at this very dark time in history. But what happens when our striving for excellence becomes an idol god? What happens when our anxieties and wounds cause us to act as if everything depended on us, leaving no room for God in the equation? How do we, whenever we attempt to go it alone, ironically end up conforming to this world– a world run by people who think they know it all, who have no real sense of interdependence with others, and certainly no sense of their need for God?
I am eternally grateful for my years of work in the addictions field. I have learned about radical dependence on God in an up close and personal way from the many, beautiful recovering addicts who have shared their stories with me. Those stories remind me of St. Paul who was constantly tormented by what he described as a “thorn in the flesh.” Paul appealed three times to God to remove this thorn and was finally told, “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul concluded, “So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
“Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” That wasn’t the message I got in the town I grew up in or the universities I attended. That isn’t the message any of us get from our culture, particularly at present where the forces of empire unapologetically strive to place themselves above the commandment to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. What messages have you heard and internalized about strength and weakness?
For addicts to recover, to step back from the abyss of hell and destruction, they need to admit their powerlessness over whatever substance or mood-altering activity holds them in its deathly grip. The First of the Twelve Steps, which can be adjusted to fit any number of addictions, reads, “We admitted we were powerless (you can fill in the blank with any other addiction–alcohol, other drugs, sex, gambling, spending, working, to name but a few) and our lives had become unmanageable.” Step Two reads, “Came to believe a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Step Three reads, “Made a decision to turn our lives and our wills over to the care of God as we understood God.” The paraphrase of those first three life-giving steps is “I can’t, God can, I think I’ll let God.”
Isn’t that the scandal of the cross, the crazy inverted message Paul proclaims when he says “whenever I am weak, then I am strong?” I can’t, God can, I think I’ll let God. Paul knew what it was to be strong in the world’s eyes. He commanded a great deal of earthly power as one of the finest teachers of Jewish law and as the strongman who viciously pursued and murdered followers of Jesus. But then he was blinded on the road to Damascus, his life turned upside down by the very Lord whose story he was trying to extinguish. And as if that weren’t enough, he was given a thorn in the flesh, an affliction which he never fully describes but which brought him no end of suffering, and for which the only remedy was confessing his own weakness and fully relying on God’s power. One of the greatest apostles and theologians was admittedly dependent on God’s power to change the world, and change the world he did.
This has been a hard week. Diona’s death, the death of Jill Barr at Church of the Saviour, the excruciatingly slow pace of Leonor’s legal case, and never-ending awful news stories have continued to weigh heavily upon us as individuals and as a community. And then there’s the chronic stresses with which many of us struggle–bereavement, injustice, health problems, relationship issues, financial worries.
I don’t want to be glib about what it means to surrender. Surrender isn’t magic and it’s certainly not easy, but the more I’ve meditated on it the more I’ve come to see surrender as a way of being deeply present with God. It’s us showing up exactly as we are–whether broken or powerful– and laying our experiences and feelings at God’s feet. In the context of our Lenten series it’s also laying down those things that keep us distant from God–resentment, ego, shame and self-condemnation, and resistance to growing in our thinking and behavior. In the context of what Paul says in Romans 12, it’s acknowledging the ways we’ve been conformed to this world and need God’s transforming power if we are to participate in God’s vision of abundant life for all people, including ourselves.
We’re headed to Jerusalem next week where triumph, anguish, and great love will collide in a way that will leave us awestruck, if not dumbstruck. We will hear Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” We will hear his agonizing cry from the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” Finally, we will hear “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” The ultimate surrender.
We carry deep within us this story of surrender, the surrender that comes when we are at the end of our human powers, perhaps even experiencing or witnessing crucifixion of some sort. God is not the Wicked Witch of the West who would imprison or hurt us, but rather the One who longs to gather us in, empower us, and lead us to new life. And so we put one foot in front of the other, at times with confidence and at times with the barest hint of trust, and turn our lives and wills over to the care of God whose love will always be stronger than death. Thanks be to this God of love in whose heart we are held and in whom we forever live and move and have our being.