Choosing to Turn Around
Second Sunday in Lent
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
17 March 2019
I had an experience not too long ago of watching someone that I care about embark on the road to self-destruction. Let us call him John. A traumatic wartime experience in Iraq, coupled with struggles with anxiety and a loss of his faith, had turned into a chronic alcoholism. A series of alcohol related events then started piling up.
People called me concerned about him. I got reports about him from various friends and acquaintances. “Did you know John was thrown out of a bar last night?” “Did you know that John was in a car accident?” “Did you know John didn’t show up to work yesterday?” The list of reports about John continued to grow. “What should we do?” people asked. “Can you do anything?” they asked me. More than once I had tried to tell John that I was worried about him That I was afraid I was watching a man on the path of self-destruction. But, John had no desire to listen to me trying to be a prophet.
And, then I started getting angry with him. I was angry at him for sabotaging his life. For wasting and misusing the tremendous gifts and talents that he had to offer to the world. For putting his friends in difficult positions. I was angry at him for being reckless, for lying, for jeopardizing his future, for the anguish he was causing his parents. It’s hard to stand by and watch a person self-destruct before your very eyes, knowing that there is nothing you can really do about it that would be helpful.
John’s behavior got worse. I could see that he was making excuses for missing work, lying to his colleagues and supervisors. He started drinking at work. He started showing up to work drunk. Everyone knew something was going on, but all offers for help were rejected. Multiple people went to him expressing concern for him, first asking him if he needed help, and then later telling him that he needed help. But he rejected their wisdom, too. He started losing his friends and alienating his family. There was nothing I could really do except stand back and watch and try not to let the chaos of his life make mine crazy, too. I was convinced that I was going to get a phone call at any time, with the message that John had died, either in a car crash or by suicide or some other terrible end.
Then one day, out of the blue, John came to me and said. “I need help. I think I need to go to rehab.” He started crying. “I hate myself and I hate my life,” he continued. “And, if I can’t get better, then I want to die.” I was shocked at this sudden reversal. I couldn’t believe it. The only thing I could think to say was, “Thank God.” He asked me to help him find a place to go to rehab. I looked after his apartment while he was away. He’s doing remarkably well now, even starting to flourish. It’s been a gift to watch his journey from self-destruction to new life.
Not all stories have such happy endings, of course. I have seen, and I am sure you, too, have seen, lives go the other way as well. But, thankfully after a series of bad choices over the course of many years, John finally made a good choice. Perhaps the most important choice he had ever made in his life. The choice to change his life, to turn away from his path of self-destruction and live.
When I was reading the passage from Luke’s Gospel and Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, I kept thinking of my how God grieves over us when we follow the wrong way and embark on the road to self-destruction.
In the Gospel passage from Luke, we hear Jesus’ famous lament, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Jesus says these words with a broken heart because he knows that Jerusalem has lost its way. Through its ambition, sin, idolatry and disobedience, it was no longer the city on the hill and the light to all nations. Temple practices and its priests were corrupt. It was the city that became known for killing every prophet that entered it. Truth-telling was unwelcome in Jerusalem. It didn’t have to be that way, Jesus knows, and he cries out in frustration, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Put another way, “Jerusalem, why are you self-destructing? Why won’t you turn to me and let me protect you? Why are you not willing to come to me? Why do you choose idols and false Gods over me?” We can hear the sorrow in Jesus’ voice. It all could have been so different. Jerusalem was overthrown and the Temple destroyed 40 years after Jesus’ death.
Jesus ends with saying, “See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” The sad fact of the matter is that Jesus is effectively saying to Jerusalem, you are going to have to reap what you have sown, and deal with the consequences of your unbelief. But, when you finally see me, you will realize the depth of your failures and call out to me as Lord.
Like Jerusalem, my friend John, was not spared the consequences of his years of alcoholism and bad decisions. Recovery required some lengthy and unpaid time off work. Relationships had to be repaired, finances had to be put straight, trust had to be rebuilt, and his employment became conditional on the continual upward trajectory of recovery. John is still in counseling, attending AA meetings, and working hard on his recovery. He is making better choices. He is making new friends and making amends to old ones.
During those years before his recovery, I know Jesus lamented in heart break over John’s path to self-destruction, when he refused the help of his friends and the help of God. I can hear Jesus saying, “John, John, How often have I desired to gather you to myself as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” For a long time, John was not willing. And, then for reasons perhaps known only to God, John had a sudden awakening, and finally became willing.
Looking at my own life, both past and present, I can think of times when Jesus, too, has lamented in heartbreak over me. “Deonna, Deonna. How often have I desired to gather you to myself as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Like Jerusalem, I have pursued my own ambitions and idols, and fallen into sin, perfectly willing to stone and slay prophets when their challenging voice of truth telling didn’t suit me. I imagine you, too, can think of times when Jesus has cried out your name, lamented over you with heartbreak, at your rejection of him and your turning away.
The ancient prophets of Israel, Isaiah and Jeremiah, as well as John the Baptist, and Jesus himself, all preached that the road to redemption lay in repentance, in metanoia, in turning around from the path of self-destruction, to a path of new life. Jesus wants nothing more than that. But Jesus, will not force himself on us. He will let us experience the consequence of our own choices because for many, only experience teaches what paths lead to self-destruction and which ones lead to new life. It is hard to watch people, especially our loved ones, make bad choices and experience their negative consequences. “I leave your house to you,” Jesus says in our passage.
Actions have consequences. Some good, some bad. That is the price of freedom and the price of love. Jesus doesn’t force us to choose him. God hates sin and gets angry when we turn away from him. But God’s anger is an anger which springs from the depths of love. God doesn’t hate sin and get angry with us because we have violated some abstract version of God’s law and God needs some abstract sense of divine justice to be satisfied. No, God hates sin and gets angry with us, because God hates watching us hurt ourselves and each other.
God, like any loving parent, gets angry when he watches his children make bad choices which ruin their lives. Sin can destroy us and those around us. That is what God hates and that is what makes God angry. As Jamie said last week, we are beloved children of God. God does not feel indifferent to our own self-destruction. He wants nothing more than to draw us to himself and protect us. And, sometimes I think the person from whom we need the most protection is from ourselves.
In the case of our friends and loved ones, we can feel angry and prophesy all we want as they continue on the path of self-destruction. But, we should not be surprised if our wisdom and advice is rejected. Sometimes the only thing we can really do to help someone is to pray for them. It doesn’t seem like much, but I’d like to think that my prayers for John over those years might have helped him a little in the process. But, if they didn’t help him, I know that praying for him over the years helped equip me to be prepared spiritually to help him, when the time finally came. But, in the end, it was John’s choice to make for himself, and not mine for him.
How many of us here today are walking blindly down the path of self-destruction? Over which of us is God still lamenting? How many of us here today is God still trying to gather to him? If it is you, remember that you have a choice. It’s never too late to repent. It’s never too late to turn around. And, if you choose to turn around, you will see God standing there waiting for you, with his arms outstretched, drawing you to himself to protect you. For God is merciful and gracious to all who have gone astray.