September 15, 2013
17th Sunday after Pentecost
Shera Nesheim, DM
I’d like to introduce you to someone. I’ve never met her myself, but would love to. Some of you know her or at least some of you may know what she has known. She is a 6 foot tall, spunky personality, often wearing a black tank top and has tattoos all down her arms and across her chest. She describes herself as cranky and sarcastic. She swears like a truck-driver. She is a recovering drug user and alcoholic.
Her name is Nadia Bolz-Weber. She is a former stand-up comic turned pastor — of a Lutheran church. This church, called The House for All Sinners and Saints is in Denver, Colorado is for people like herself. For people who don’t fit in. Who don’t fit the “Lutheran” stereotype. And so if you happen to go to worship there, you will find every sort – she has described her church as a place where you will find convicted felons, elected officials and soccer moms next to teenagers with pink hair. It is a place that is kind of like Heart River where you can gaze across the pews and find a sea of green scrubs, tons of teenagers who are searching, a retired pastor or two, officers, retirees, news anchors, geologists, florists, and even wee-ones.
I want Nadia to tell you her story. The youtube video I am about to show you is a clip where she is speaking to thousands of teenagers at the National Youth Gathering in 2012. Previously she is describing her childhood, growing up in a very conservative, fundamentalist tradition, and living in a world in which feels like she doesn’t fit in.
2:40 I didn’t fit and like who I was didn’t make sense. So I left that church, and uh when I was a teenager, when I left that church, and when I left my parent’s house, I had a couple things going on, one, I hated Christianity, I hated it. I hated the smallness, I hated the fact that we had to reject everyone that wasn’t just like us, I hated the narrow-mindedness, I didn’t know….that was the only form of Christianity I knew existed and I knew I didn’t like it. And the other thing I had going on, by the time I left, when I was a teenager, is I had a really juicy drug and alcohol problem.
“See, booze, for me, alcohol, what it did for me, was it felt like it was the only thing that loosened those muscles in my chest, that came from the pressure and fear of being human in a world that felt like it was going to crush me. And for a long time it kind of helped, right, but the problem is that my fear and isolation that I had, plus alcohol, equals bad. It didn’t take long for things to get really bad. I was an alcoholic by the time I was probably 18 years old. So I also had this idea, I’m not sure where I got it because I didn’t belong anywhere and I didn’t fit and no one wanted my flavor, and I had this idea that I was going to be dead by the time I was 30 and I had this enormous capacity for destruction both of myself and of other people. For instance when all my peers were in college like at age 19, I was living in a 2 bedroom apartment with 8 people and some junkie was tattooing me in his living room.
So– different choices right? They were making the choice to go to college. I was making the choice to kill myself slowly. And then this thing happened. When I was 22 years old and it was that I somehow got clean and sober – I have been clean and sober by the grace of God and the fellowship of other alcoholics for over 20 years so yeah. When that happened it didn’t feel like I pulled myself up by my spiritual bootstraps. When that happened it felt like a completely RUDE interruption from God – I was on this path towards destroying myself and its like God reached down and plucked me up and went ‘that’s adorable but I’m going to put you over here’ and now I know what that is, it’s the grace of God. At that point I didn’t have the language for it, all I knew it was a gift that was given to me and that I didn’t earn it and I just tried to live in response to that gift.” 5:43
It seems to me, that when I hear Nadia speak about her life, I think about the parable we heard today of the lost sheep. The one who’s wandered far off the course, away from the pack, through wrong turns and right turns and soon she’s alone in the wilderness, not sure where to go or who to turn to. She has seen the deep valleys and rocky hills, she has persevered through burning heat and pouring rain. Jesus, the steadfast shepherd, pursues her, finds her. Plucks her from the destruction of hazardous choices of abusing drugs and alcohol and people… to a path filled with grace and life.
Haven’t we all had a lost sheep moment? At least one? Maybe a dozen? I’m not just talking about getting lost and yelling at the GPS as it says “re-calculating” for the 6th time in its annoying automated voice. I’m not just talking about that deeply confused, lost feeling as your teacher tries to help you follow what they are talking about in algebra class. (Believe me, I’m still lost when it comes to math.) I’m talking about the type of lost when we are strayed by our addictions – addictions as serious as drugs or as innocent as spending absurd amounts of time on facebook. I’m talking about the type of lost when we feel invisible in the middle of a crowd. The type of lost when we feel so disoriented by our desires we cannot see the deepest needs of people around us. We are lost when we have no direction for our future. When something or someone pulls you further and further from where you are supposed to be, you’re lost.
When we find ourselves in the “lost sheep moment” we sometimes get there quickly through a really, bad, destructive choice. Although, sometimes we find ourselves lost through a series of wrong turns. Either way, we feel alone and vulnerable. We feel that God, hope and faith are a million miles away. The stories from Scripture today can be words of hope for those who are lost.
Because the powerful thing here is that, like Nadia said, we don’t have the burden of responsibility to pull ourselves up by our “spiritual bootstraps.” It is not the sheep who gets lost and comes crawling back to her shepherd. No. The shepherd is the one coming to us. Despite our misgivings, our failings, Jesus pushes through the junk in our life and scoops us up in his arms, and carries us out of the darkness and despair we’re stuck in. Yes, God is that foolish shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go in search of the ONE he cares so deeply about. YOU. And me. And Nadia. God is the one that cleans up the cobwebs, dusts the bookshelves and on knees and palms desperately searching for his treasure, a coin, and when God finds us, God rejoices. God irresponsibly throws a party, for the lost one, who has now been found.
One word I found on thesaurus.com that is the opposite of lost, is “alive.” I LOVE that. Jesus comes to not only FIND us, but to make us ALIVE once more. Sometimes it is a rude interruption. Sometimes we’re so desperate for Christ to come save us, we fall into his arms in exhaustion, sometimes on the verge of death. And perhaps, like Nadia, we are made alive once more. I pray that if you are feeling lost in any way, that you may learn to trust the good Shepherd. The one who’s nail-pierced hand reaches for us, to make us alive once again, who saves us. Thanks be to God.
Special note: I ask for forgiveness for any misrepresentation of Nadia Bolz-Weber in this sermon. Information about her was taken from her NPR interview with Krista Tippett “On Being – Seeing the Underside and Seeing God: Tattoos, Tradition, and Grace” http://www.onbeing.org/program/nadia-bolz-weber-on-seeing-the-underside-and-seeing-god-tattoos-tradition-and-grace/5896 and from her speech at the ELCA National Youth Gathering 2012 (http://youtu.be/kM9Y5S3UYi8) And, if anyone wants to continue to know who Nadia Bolz-Weber is, check out her newly released book, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. I know it’s on my must-read list!