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Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent - March 11 2018

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 11, 2018
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

[May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my salvation. Amen.]

Moses held up the bronze serpent so that people who had been poisoned by the serpents sent by God into the camp – and who acknowledged their sin – could be cured.  Jesus is held up like the bronze serpent so that “whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” 

In the first scenario, those who admit their sin and act in the belief that God can save them are saved.  In the second scenario, those who believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed of God, are saved.

God sent Jesus (as it were, a new serpent) into the world to save it, just as God sent the serpents into the camp to turn people back to God and save them….

So both images turn on faith in God to deliver.

And Paul, writing to the church in Ephesus, says “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

John says, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light ….”

This week, many of us were surprised to see an article in The New York Times that talked about the twin plagues of suicide and drug addiction right here in Madison and Jefferson County.[1]  If we’ve been paying attention at all, we know we have some serious problems here; but the scale of those problems may be greater than we thought – the highest suicide rate in the state, at three times the national average, for example.  If you’re like me, you’re wondering both why it’s this bad and what we can do about it.

All I can say is we’re going to need a lot of avenues, a lot of interventions, and a lot of effort – but I do believe we can, because we must, find some solutions if we stick together and are willing to try anything.

I want to tell you a couple stories that may help point the way.

First, I want to tell you mine, and how I came this close to killing myself in my early twenties. 

You look surprised.  That’s alright.  It was a long time ago, and, obviously, I got through it.  But here’s my story.

I have told you that child abuse hurts more than the child involved; it can damage a whole family as well.  In our case, my parents were so frustrated with my brother’s acting out – one of the symptoms of abuse, had they but known it – that I was not allowed to express anger at home.  So instead, that anger turned inward, and I became depressed. I was so apt to cry even in grade school that some of the bullying kids called me “hoover dam.” 

By the time I graduated from college, I had developed a pattern of cyclical depression – I would be fine and feel fine for months, and then something would set me off, usually when I didn’t live up to my own expectations, and the feelings of worthlessness would descend and settle into my heart and spirit.  This was not a depression from a chemical imbalance in the brain, it developed from low self-worth, from low self-esteem.  It was an emotional imbalance, what the psychologists call an “affective disorder.”

The spring in which I was about to graduate from college and I had plans to go to grad school, the depression cycle began again – I was only working part-time and I had almost nothing to my name; although my parents did help out a little bit. 

I went to one of the priests at the cathedral where I attended church and sang in the choir.  We had several appointments, and one week he asked me what I liked about myself – it was a very short list – and the next he asked me what I didn’t like about myself.  Well, that list went on and on; and by the time I arrived home to my bare and empty apartment, I was in a state of near collapse.  I sat down on the bed and cried.  And cried.  And cried.  On and on, I cried; I don’t know how long, but it seemed to never come to an end.  And then, my spirit left my body.  There I was, floating up in a corner of the room, looking down on my body, as it got up and walked into the bathroom.

Now the bathroom was long and narrow, so you would walk past the bathtub to the sink and the medicine cabinet, and the toilet was by the window.  Inside the medicine cabinet I had some pain pills that my doctor had given me for menstrual pain – Darvon with codeine in them.  And I knew that my body was heading for those pills, and I didn’t care.

But, just as my body reached the far end of the tub, it walked into the hand of God.  And at that very moment, my spirit lept down and I came to myself and was horrified by what I had almost done.  So I turned around and walked out of the bathroom into the bedroom and thought about what had just happened.  I decided I needed to get rid of the pills, first, and then go find help.  So I went back into the bathroom, took the pills out of the cabinet, and flushed them.  Then I went and spent the afternoon at a friend’s place.

It was years before I ever told anyone about that day.  I didn’t even tell the priest.

The thing is, when God stopped me, I knew I would never try to kill myself again, and I never have.  I knew that deep down at the bottom of my personal hell, God was there.

Now, one might hear a story like that and think – it’s a miracle; and I think I’d agree with you.  But one might also say to oneself, “I guess God had a purpose for her life.”

I don’t want you to think that – not because I don’t think it’s true, but because it could sound like God has no purpose for the lives of all the people who have, for whatever reason, actually taken their own lives. And where is God in all those situations?  An excellent question. Because I’m not special any more than anyone else.

Now, we come to a second story. In The Washington Post on Thursday, there was an article by a man named Aaron Stark, who wrote about some hard times in his life.

Homeless from the age of 14; dropped out of school at 16.  Turned away from a mental health treatment facility….

Facing utter hopelessness, I snapped. I tried to get a gun; I wanted to take out as many people as possible — people who had tortured or ignored me — and then kill myself. It was 1997, and I had two possible locations mapped out: my school and a mall food court. I wanted to be heard. The abuse I’d suffered had closed me off, and I wanted to feel an emotion other than pain. I wanted to feel, for once, like I was in control, even if that meant spreading destruction and death.

I sought a group of local gang members who gathered outside my school. They had dealt drugs to people in my family, and they knew I didn’t use myself, so they trusted me. They always talked about “being strapped,” and because I was not raised around guns, they were the only connection my young mind could imagine. I approached one member and asked about a rifle, something that would let me inflict maximum damage in a small amount of time. The exchange was businesslike. He suggested that he could procure one, and we exchanged phone calls for three days.

On the third day, something else stopped me — and altered the course of my life. I was shown love and kindness at a time when I felt there was no love left in the world for me, that I had no future whatsoever, that I was barely human. It came from Mike, who lived near my family. Mike and I shared interests and a sense of humor. He came from a loving, intact family, and his parents were kind and supportive. He’d stayed in school while I lived a life of evictions and fast-food jobs. But despite our differences, he showed me compassion. He never once condescended to me because I didn’t have any money. No matter how badly I smelled from sleeping on pavement, or how much of his food I ate to get a meal that wasn’t stolen, no matter how much I cried and raged about my life, he never once left my side. Even when every other person in my world pushed me away — and they did — Mike never treated me like anything other than a person worthy of love and happiness.

Mike took me in that night, letting me sleep in his room against his parents’ wishes, sneaking me leftovers from dinner. He helped me wash my clothes and let me take a shower. Being my only friend, he knew how bad my life was. He did not know what I had planned, but he knew I needed help desperately. He gave it to me. And it made a lifetime of difference.

Still, all my problems didn’t vanish right away. A couple of months after my near-explosion, I was in a deep suicidal state. I had used up any couches I could possibly surf, and I was going to have to sleep in a field (not for the first time) on my birthday, with nothing but cold and loneliness to look forward to. So I’d decided to end it all.

I hadn’t shared my feelings with anyone, but someone was watching. Mike’s friend Amber knew me a little, and we’d hung out, though we weren’t especially close. Nevertheless, she invited me to hang out that night. I expected to see a movie with her and Mike, then return to my solitude. Instead, she’d organized a surprise party, complete with a blueberry peach pie and a place to sleep. Her mom made sure I showered. Again, an act of kindness saved my life. [2]

In Aaron Stark’s story, there was no literal “hand of God” such as I experienced. What there was, was the open hearts of two friends who saw he was in distress and responded to that alone.  They didn’t know what he was thinking; they didn’t know he wanted to kill a lot of people or kill himself; they just knew he was alone and down.  So they acted.  They acted for him like the hand of God acted for me.

Interventions work.

The sad thing is, we don’t always know when an intervention might be needed.  So the best advice I can give you is, if someone you know seems down or lonely or blue, invite them – to your home, to a meal, to a movie, for a walk, for a conversation, even here!

You never know; you may never know: but you could just save a life – or many lives.

There are so many people in our community with a desire to help.  And that’s a good thing, because it takes a community to address our community’s problems.  It takes love to heal broken hearts.  It takes God to guide and give us strength and courage.

It takes the cross to tell us we are beloved of God, worthy to stand before God, and empowered to reach out without fear to help one another, and, indeed, all creation.  We all need help sometimes; and we can all help each other.  That’s what God does for us.  That’s what Jesus does for us. 

So, look to the cross.  Follow the path.  Tend the sick, soothe the suffering, bless the dying, and all for the sake of God’s love enacted on the cross and in our lives … every … single … day.

[In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.]

 

 

[1] Juliet Macur. “Suicides, Drug Addiction and High School Football,” © The New York Times, March 8, 2018.  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/08/sports/opioids-suicide.html.  Accessed 3/9/18.

[2] Aaron Stark, “I would have been a school shooter if I could’ve gotten a gun,” © The Washington Post, March 8, 2018.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/03/08/i-would-have-been-a-school-shooter-if-i-couldve-gotten-a-gun/?utm_term=.de9eb14c1977.  Accessed 3/9/18.