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Sermon – September 12, 2010: Knowledge

Sermon for Sunday, September 12, 2010 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Knowledge

Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1: 12-17; Luke 15: 1 – 10

One of the precepts of Alcoholics Anonymous is that the non drinking participants in

their program, the folks who’ve been sober for twenty years, are not just anybody. Each

and every one of them is an alcoholic. It may have been since 1997 since Joanne took a

drink, but when Joanne comes to the A.A. meeting she identifies herself as an alcoholic, and

every other member of the meeting is reminded by her example and the routine language

they use about themselves that each of them is an alcoholic.

I used to think of that as a way for the people at the meeting not to get bigheaded

and think how great they were because they were succeeding at staying sober. It seemed

like a way to say, “I have been sober for a long time but any time I fail to keep my guard up

and decide I can take a drink, I’ll go right back to being a drunk.” There’s some truth in both

those benefits of the language the A.A. meetings encourage, but there’s a deeper level to

it. The constant consciousness of being a person with a permanent, immutable relationship

to alcoholic beverages provides A.A. meeting members with an identity which allows them

to make sense of themselves. It provides a personal life story which gives them a way to

understand where they have been, and where they are going and how to get there.

Outsiders easily see Twelve-Step Programs, like A.A., in terms of group dynamics

and interpersonal influence, and the cultivation of steady habits. What is less obvious from

the outside is the group’s educational goal. The story it tells about what alcoholism is and

how it must be resisted is reinforced over and over through the group’s literature and

through the meetings it holds. Success is not just a matter of heeding the other person’s

warnings or encouragement. Success is linked to a new way to look at oneself, and a new

way to conceive the world.

So that members of the meetings are students. They have their pamphlets which

are their rock-bottom reality documents, the paragraphs and sentences which tell them who

they are and how to approach the challenges they face. In the crises of their lives they

open their books and do their best to buy what is written there, because dozens or

hundreds of other people have testified that it’s the only way to get through.

If you look up A.A. on the internet you’ll find charges from some quarters that it’s a

cult and one web page accuses it of being the official state religion of the United States–I

presume because compulsory participation in meetings so often is part of a sentence for

DUI. The truth is that it is not the least surprising that A.A. seems so much like a type of

religious indoctrination. The whole concept was copied from an earlier meeting model which

was devised to help Christians grow more deeply in their faith. Small, doctrinally-based

get-togethers involving confessing to one another and encouraging one another to stick to

the one true path were hallmarks of what was known as the Oxford Group movement, an

effort to revitalize Christianity in the early twentieth century. So it’s no accident that there’s a

book behind the meeting model, and a way of looking at the world, and a consciousness of

needing the help of a higher power to resist the self-destructive impulses which arise.

I began talking about Alcoholics Anonymous because I wanted to emphasize their

being based on a world view, and their reliance on education in order to be successful. I

wanted to suggest that their customary reference to themselves as alcoholics has a deeper

significance than might first appear, that it is part of an acknowledged identity which ties into a

story of temptation and failure and, with the help of other people and a higher power,

redemption. They always, because of who they truly and fundamentally are, are prey to

the problems which go with their identity, and they always, because of the presence of

people who care and a higher power, have the resources to live as persons with some

mastery of their circumstances, rather than as persons mastered by an addiction.

There’s an emphasis on children on this first Sunday of Sunday School, because

we’re glad to have them back for the children’s Christian education program. It seems odd

to spend so much time talking about adult problems and self-help groups. The reason I’m

doing that is that I want to say that Christian education isn’t just for younger persons, but for

all of us all our lives. There’s no way around having the instruction of the very young be a

kind of indoctrination, and though that’s a word which adults often connect with something

wrong, it’s not wrong for small children. They need someone they trust to give them a

confident, easy-to-understand explanation of how the world works, and who we are in it.

Both bad and good schools of thought indoctrinate, and even a philosophy which trusts

open inquiry and tolerates divergent understandings teaches that approach according to a

doctrine of the preferability and promise of free thinking.

What we want to do, when we teach the very young, and what we want to have,

when we make an effort to learn as adults, is the best possible way of conceiving who each

of us is and who all of us are, and what the world is and why we are in it. We believe that

we find those answers in the Bible, and we further believe that God’s spirit is made

available to us to read the Bible and draw conclusions and discuss what we’ve learned.

That gives us a better chance to be leading authentic lives, lives based on what is true.

A.A. meetings were modeled on a Christian small-group movement, and talking

about the educational emphasis of A.A. and the impact on the lives of alcoholics who learn

from A.A. is a way to get us to recognize that Christianity also counts on education and on

each disciple’s learning a way to understand himself or herself and the world.

This church has an approach which we abbreviate in the words “Free to Think, Bound

to Serve.” See, we do believe in every person’s thinking for himself and herself, we’re not

a tradition that relies on a presumed assent to a single perspective which everyone parrots

but which people may individually doubt. That’s the problem that dogmatic approaches

have, that some people aren’t really entirely convinced. Now, our problem is that we have

a lot of varied and nuanced beliefs and we aren’t entirely convinced of those, always, either-

-but at least our beliefs really are our own. We also, because we rely more on the grace of

God than our own being right about religion, always at least theoretically can learn

something new, come to a better understanding.

What would help us would be to come to a better understanding of our nature and

our standing in the world we live in each day, and that larger world which includes God and

eternity and all those things. What we do in church is remind ourselves and each other that

the world really is that large– that there is a God behind and beyond the physical world.

We think we know something about that God–that God is good, and that God is

responsible for the reality in which we live, and that God has declared that reality good.

We know that we have an inquisitive and an impulsive nature, and that those traits

can have both good results and bad results. All of this we learn from the first few chapters

of the Bible. The more we look into scripture and see the interaction of human beings with

the deity, the more we see a pattern of promise being jeopardized by temptation, and

judgment being averted by salvation. People have great possibilities, but often cannot

resist going wrong, and God pronounces righteous retribution, but also seeks to find a way

to rescue.

Our equivalent of the Alcoholics Anonymous’s universal truth of being alcoholic is that

we all are sinners. That’s a broad term, and one which some people resist, but all that it

does is confirm that we’re the gifted but flawed characters in the story to which we’ve just

referred, always too curious, or proud, or appetitive, or something, to resist going a little too

far. We are the sinners whom God must save, or there is no saving us. We have a need

for a higher power, and we have a need for other people who recognize and believe that

this is how it works, in order to be able to lead our own lives with clarity and hope.

The hymns, the rituals, the routines, the religious language, the reading of scripture

and the offering of sermons, the teaching in classes and conversations in Bible studies, the

prayers and the praying together, all have an educational impact. Church gives our lives a

shape and gives us a self-understanding.

It is important that, when we are small, we are taught of the goodness of God and

the merit of prayer and to know Jesus as one who takes us on his knee against the

objections of those who think God’s too big for that. It’s important, as we grow and our way

of looking at the world becomes more complex, that we stay engaged with the God we

first meet in simple stories, that we learn to relate to an adult God. Our faith is that God

always is larger than the meanings we comprehend of God, and our faith is that God always

is able to give us life, and show us love, and teach us how important it is that each of us,

every sinner that we are, turns from what does us harm and allows ourselves to be sought,

and secured, by God.

 

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