Look What God Can Do by Vicar Atticus Zavaletta
Updated: Oct 6, 2019
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, Amen.
When a sheep gets lost, it has no way of finding its way home. An interesting fact about sheep is that they have a flocking instinct, but not a homing instinct--like, for instance, dogs do--that would help them to come back home. On the day to day, sheep play “follow the leader”-- they mostly just follow each other, and they stay together, so they usually don’t get lost.
But they will get lost when a predator is attacking the flock: all the sheep flee and run for their lives, and that’s when some get lost in the process.
Sheep don’t go out on their own on purpose: they’re scared to go out on their own. So if and when they get separated from their flock, they get really, really distressed. So much so that a sheep is never transported somewhere on its own. It would cause the sheep too much undue suffering. So farmers know to always transport them in groups.
We share a lot of our nature with sheep. It’s part of our nature to lose our way. And its part of our nature that we fail to thrive if we are left totally alone. And even though we don’t like to be alone, it’s also part of our nature to get separated from the flock from time to time. Sometimes, we find ourselves in the wrong flocks.... Sometimes, we find ourselves with no flock.
What do you do when you’ve lost your way? If you’re like me, you take counsel from your best friends and closest allies. You look to family members and spiritual mentors. And they form a human chain that brings you back.
Some people don’t have that. I think, that that’s what Church can be. Some people get lost and won’t ever find their way back without a flock that makes its business the care of lost sheep.
In 1 Timothy today, the writer who is writing in the voice of Paul, refers to Paul’s sinful past. He calls himself “the foremost sinner” of all humanity. We might tend to forget this about Paul, but back when his name was Saul, he used to murder and imprison Christians. He was so sure that Christians were evil and on the wrong side of things, that he actually killed them.
Yet Paul says that unworthy as he was, the grace of Christ Jesus overflowed for him.
God made something good out of what was evil. Paul becomes a vessel of God’s mercy so that he might be an example to others.
He’s saying: Look what God can do. Look how powerful God is!
Look what God can do with the ruin of a human life.
I want to share a little bit about my personal story with you, and why it might seem that my focus is so much on people who seem so undeserving of grace.
It’s because that’s who I was.
I was raised in a charismatic, conservative church in South Texas. As a child I had very real experiences with God, that grew out of my community of faith and what I learned there. But as an adolescent, I saw through the hypocrisy of claiming that Jesus was love and then barring LGBTQ people from full fellowship. I couldn’t remain in a church that saw who I was as a perversion of God’s “intended plan.”
I didn’t know it then, but in leaving I would shortly become lost. It was a journey I had to take. But the journey was rough, and dangerous, and I might not have survived.
You know, there are many different reasons why people lose their way. But I think there’s one cause. People lose their way because they’re in pain.
As a teenager, I started experimenting with drugs. Part of my efforts to flee from the debilitating shame that my religion had injected into me for being transgender. My flight to drugs was also an attempt to find some source of truth that wasn’t centered in a church that said who I was at my core was disgusting. That plan didn’t work out very well, though. It got so bad that I dropped out of high school, and experimentation with drugs would worsen and morph into addiction.
Things took an even worse turn in my 20s. My sister was diagnosed with leukemia and given days to live. I was studying the Holocaust at the time, and something in me simply broke apart.
I don’t remember much from that time, but I know that it was ugly out there.
I ran in the streets, and spent all day every day just trying to get the next fix. I lied and I stole. I stole from my family and I stole from my friends. I stole from my own Mother, who had never shown me anything but kindness and unconditional love. Nobody could rely on me for anything. And I brought chaos into the lives of anyone who cared about me.
Any opportunities I had been afforded to move ahead in life, like a 7 year doctoral fellowship, fully funded and stipended, at a prestigious school, dwindled away as one day turned into the next day, and I sank lower and lower into the filth of addiction.
And I really suffered out there. I wrestled with myself, and I wrestled with God for a long, dark night that lasted a decade.
One day, that’s seared forever in my mind, I found myself laying on the floor. I was unable to sit up because I was too weak- I weighed 90 lbs, had been awake for days, and hadn’t eaten in a week. But I couldn’t stop putting the cocaine into my body. I started to weep. I laid there like that for hours. I was so weak that all I was physically capable of doing was reaching my arm out to fix my next batch, and lifting my head off the floor to ingest it.
I was scared I might overdose, and I felt my body reaching a saturation. I threw up a few times that night--I think my body was rejecting it. But still, I could not stop. My whole life came out in sobs. Between tears and vomit, I had come to rock bottom at long last.
Maybe some of you know what that’s like, rock bottom. If you do, you know that the only way left to go once you’ve hit the bottom, is up.
And that’s when I asked for help.
Through the 12 steps of AA and people in that program who’d walked the path before me who reached out to help me, I heard that God loved me, and that God could help me. I learned to include myself in the story of God’s love for the world. I left my feelings of shamefulness and unworthiness to the side and reached out for God’s help, because, unworthy as I was, God met me.
I saw then that since my youth, I had had a relationship with God’s relationship with the world, and that that relationship had not included me. I had internalized the message I received from the church of my youth that I was an abomination, unworthy of God’s care. But because I made that leap of faith—I got to come back to life. God brought me back from the brink of the grave.
And I want to tell you why I could make that leap of faith. It’s because people loved me.
And I wasn’t easy to love. But there were witnesses all along the way who pointed to a flock, to a people of God, who would love me, and where I would belong.
Have you ever been hard to love?
When I was living a Prodigal life, and had lost my flock, you see, there were people who never stopped believing in me, who never stopped believing for me, who never stopped praying for me. The Christians who loved me? They represented the Church and God to me. They are the reason I felt comfortable coming back into Church, and feeling, “I can come home now.”
I was lost to myself, but I was never lost to God. Today, I have been clean from drugs for 8 years. 8 years in which I’ve had the chance to get to know myself better, get to know God better, and 8 years in which I’ve gotten to show up for other people in need of care.
Look what God can do with the ruin of a human life.
There are sheep outside our doors who have lost their flocks. We wonder why they act the way they do. But no human being can thrive when they are isolated and alone. I promise you that having a Church on their block that cares about them, makes a difference in their lives.
On the street, the economy is tit-for-tat: do this for me, and I’ll do that for you. Get my back and I’ll get yours. It makes sense, and it’s easy. But that’s not the kindom of Heaven. In the economy of Grace set forth by Jesus Christ, no one is deserving yet everyone receives mercy. Jesus never asked of the poor, or of sinners, whether they were deserving or not. He shared the good news that God was for them, and that they were part of God’s family, regardless of worthiness.
That message is one that changed my life. And if I had not been extended that grace, I wouldn’t be here with you today. I wonder how many peoples’ destinies have been changed by St. Luke’s witness of God’s love. I wonder how many more people we could touch by deepening and widening our welcome, by inviting them into our flock, into the family of God?