(This sermon was delivered to a group recovering from alcohol and drug addiction.)
When I go into an AA meeting, I always introduce myself as an alcoholic.
And for the last four years, every Tuesday night at Overeaters Anonymous,
I fess up to being a food junkie too.
(One Oreo cookie is too much –
and a thousand aren’t enough!)
But every so often, I also have a burning desire to introduce myself
as a recovering Catholic or as a recovering Christian –
And maybe here is the most appropriate place to do that.
Tonight’s readings – especially the gospel we just heard –
they got me to thinking about all this –
Because in some ways the readings go right to the heart
of my own God problem.
Thirty-five years ago, alcohol & drugs landed me in treatment for the second time;
and that got my attention and it also got me good & scared.
I knew I had another drunk in me, but I didn’t think I had a third recovery in me –
So as the Big Book says: I stood at that turning point.
But when they told me my sobriety rested on building a relationship
with a Higher Power that I could come to love and trust
I figured I was doomed.
See, my problems with God pre-dated my addictions –
They started way back when I was a kid.
My father was also an alcoholic;
But he was very much an alcoholic of the violent variety.
So when I was growing-up, I got regular beatings
whether I needed them or not.
And I got locked in dark closets,
and had my mouth washed out with soap for using the same
words my old man was using around the house.
My dad’s favorite slogan was always:
“Don’t do as I do – Do as I tell you.”
Now that’s a great prescription for going crazy
or becoming an alcoholic at a very early age.
Maybe some of you can relate!
But anyway, my first religious crisis hit when I reached the second grade.
It came on the day when some old nun was trying to teach us kids
exactly what God was like.
And I remember her saying to us – all very innocently,
“Well kids, you see, God is sort of like your own father –
only he’s bigger – and a lot more powerful –
and he knows everything that you do.”
And from the back of the room I shouted, “Holy Shit! … I’m dead!” –
And that’s when she washed my mouth out with soap too!
Needless to say, I was set-up for what should have been
a lifetime of problems with God.
Whenever someone said the word God
and they attached the word father to it –
then emotionally – unconsciously – I wanted to duck and run for cover.
Our youngest son Matt just came home from the Marine Corps.
He’s had two very tough and very bloody tours over in Iraq –
He was hit several times by enemy fire
and knocked unconscious by exploding roadside bombs.
He’s been diagnosed with PTSD – as have a lot of those soldiers coming home; –
but, strangely enough, his experience over there is bringing me & him closer together –
and we’re now relating to one another on a whole new level –
And that’s because living with a violent alcoholic
it’s pretty much like living in a war zone –
You never know when that next roadside bomb is going to go off under the kitchen table-
or when all the furniture in the house is
gonna suddenly be turned into collateral damage.
But like all of us here, my addictions finally brought me to my knees
and landed me in the program.
And what I found here was a whole bunch of people
who’d also been traumatized by life –
and people who had their own set of God problems as well.
But – one way or another – most of ‘em had somehow come to terms with their past –
most had made it safely over to the other side of Step Three.
Like tonight’s Big Book reading says:
They were people like me whose failures in life
caused them to collapse and nearly despair.
They were people who’d run out of their own resources
but who’d somehow managed to find that New Power they needed
and they’d allowed that Power to flow into their hearts.
I was a skeptic at first – but as I got to know them, I knew they weren’t lying to me.
I watched that Power flow into them –
And I watched as they found peace, and happiness,
and that sense of direction in their lives that I wasn’t anywhere close to having.
And after a while, I really wanted what they had.
To a man (and to a woman) – they said that God alone had made that possible.
They’d traveled different paths in finding him –
and they said I’d have to find my own way too.
They said it would probably be a way that God had in mind just for me –
Maybe it was a plan that he had in mind from the beginning.
A plan that might have taken what looked like a few dozen detours
and some really crazy turns –
But they said when I looked back on it all,
I’d probably see that all those twists & all of those turns were absolutely necessary to get me to where I needed to be.
And finally, those people told me that I could have everything they had:
I could have their sense of peace, and their sense of purpose.
All it required was a willingness on my part to do a few simple things and take a few simple steps.
Tonight, we heard some words taken from John’s gospel.
And John’s always been my very favorite gospel writer.
And no disrespect intended,
but I think that’s probably because I did a lot of acid back in the
60’s and John’s always struck me as a sort of mystical/hippie, gospel writer –
But John didn’t need LSD to see into what the Big Book calls:
“that fourth dimension of our existence.”
John’s like one of those really spiritual guys you meet with fifty years sober –
and what they see and how they see the world isn’t anything like the everyday world
that you and I are looking at.
Their vision cuts right through – right down to the core –
They go deep beneath the surface of things.
So John fills his gospel with very powerful words and with mind-blowing images:
I am in the Father – and the Father is in me.
I am the way, and I am the truth, and I am the life.
Come follow me – he says – cause I know where I’m going – and if you’ll look deep enough inside your own self – so do you!
The images John uses and the strange words that he puts into the mouth of Jesus –
they’re unlike any of the words we’ll find in the other three gospels.
This isn’t a gospel that just tries to tell us what Jesus did and what he might have said.
This is a gospel that tries to carry its readers back into the very mind, and heart, and soul of Jesus.
And in doing all this, it seems that the God-problem that some of us face today
isn’t too different from the God-problem people struggled with 2,000 years ago.
Maybe the more things change – the more some things stay the same.
Now the people back then believed in God all right;
but the God they believed in wasn’t much of a presence in their lives.
God was good and God was holy – and all of that–
but he wasn’t present – God wasn’t in their hearts –
He wasn’t experienced as anything like a loving Father
showing any real affection for any of his kids.
That idea and that experience was about as foreign to them
as a loving father was foreign to me in growing up.
But then Jesus came into their lives.
And like that commercial from a few years back used to say:
“This changes everything.”
When Jesus was present –
When he came to people who were feeling empty, and lost, and afraid –
When he touched those people & healed
their deepest wounds and fulfilled their greatest longings –
Then somehow those people began to feel God’s presence and sense God’s power coming straight through him and into their own lives.
It was as if Jesus had turned so much of his own life & so much of his own will over to the care of God
that when people stood in his presence
they felt that somehow
they were standing in God’s presence too.
So John’s Jesus can say: “You’ve seen me – now you’ve seen the Father too!”
And when Jesus spoke to people about the God of his understanding –
he spoke about him in a way that had never been done before.
He called God – his Abba – and that translates not so much as his Father –
but more like: his Papa or his Daddy.
It was a scandal to some of the religious people back then
But to the people who had a huge hole in their hearts –
To the people who had a Father-God-hole deep inside –
It sounded like what they’d been waiting to hear all of their lives.
As addicts, we’ve tried filling that Father-God-hole inside with
alcohol, and with drugs, – we’ve filled it with food, and with sex,
and with a hundred other things as well.
But whatever we try, there’s just never enough of it.
That hole inside us is a hole that’s made just for God.
And it won’t be filled and we won’t be satisfied with anything less than him –
And this is what John is trying to tell his readers –
that Jesus filled that hole for him and filled it for his friends too.
So he says: We couldn’t see the face of the Father –
but we saw the face of Jesus.
And we couldn’t hear the voice of the Father,
but we heard the words of his Anointed – his Christ.
Jesus had a pretty simple message that he preached.
He told people: They were loved by God.
He told them they were loved not for anything they’d done
But loved unconditionally simply for being who they were.
They were the sons and daughters of a loving God –
They were God’s own kids — just like him!
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During his life on earth, Jesus brought God’s presence into the lives of many.
He made real and immediate “a loving, Father-God”
who had always seemed distant and removed.
But when Jesus died, a very strange thing happened.
It’s the strange thing that Christians call Easter –
And however we choose to understand it,
what it really means is simply this:
His presence and his power didn’t go away.
Somehow, the people who knew Jesus continued to feel him present –
Somehow they continued to experience him as still being with them.
And as the years went on, maybe an even stranger thing happened.
People who didn’t know him when he was alive –
People who’d never even met him –
They too began to experience Jesus.
They experienced him as a just as much of a living presence and
just as much a living power in their lives
as the ones who’d known him in the flesh.
Now one of my favorite religious writers is a guy by the name of Huston Smith.
And Smith’s a scholar who’s studied all of the world’s religions
and he’s put them together in a book that’s now sold
a couple of million copies.
And in that book he’s boiled each of the world’s great religions
right down to its absolute essence:
What is about that religion that appeals to people?
What is it that helps and heals the people who practice it–
What is it that fixes the holes in their souls?
So you read his chapter on Buddhism –
and – if your heart is open to that hole –
you’ll want to be a Buddhist.
And you read his chapter on Hinduism – and if your heart is open to that one –
You’ll want to quit your job, buy a loin-cloth and move to India.
Smith seems to agree with Jesus that,
“There are many rooms in my father’s house!”
And at the very end of his book, Smith has a terrific chapter
on one of those rooms that we call Christianity –
And it’s a chapter that I’d like for us to look at tonight.
(At the end of the service we’ll pass out a couple of pages from his book that deal with some of this.)
And how Smith approaches Christianity is like this:
He goes way back to the first century AD, back to the people who first knew Jesus
and he asks what was it about him that so attracted them to him?
What was it in their hearts that was missing?
And what was it that Jesus gave them
so they went away feeling that hole: filled with God?
Smith says Jesus healed three holes that every human being carries inside.
The first hole he says is fear.
And in the gospel reading we heard tonight,
Jesus is preparing to go to his own death.
He’s on his way to the cross and yet he says to his friends:
“Don’t be afraid; don’t give in to your distress!”
He’s about to die and yet he’s telling his friends there’s nothing to fear.
Now we all have our fears –
and some of us who are prone to being over-achievers,
we skip right over fear and we go straight into terror!Smith gives an example of this when he says: we’re all going to die – and not only us,
but so is everyone we know and so is everyone we love.
Now death can be a terrifying thought if you ever stop long enough to think about it.
But Jesus knew that his own death was coming –
and he faced his fear and he faced his terror –
He walked right through them holding on to only one thing:
the absolute trust that he had in his Abba, Father God –
And on Easter Sunday – God answered one of man’s greatest fears.
God overcame death and Jesus overcame the grave.
Smith says that’s what gave Jesus’ followers the ability to stare death
and stare those lions in the Coliseum right in the eye.
Jesus had overcome one of man’s deepest fears.
And the second hole that Smith identifies in the human heart is guilt –
And, of course, as addicts we have it in spades!
But, when you do wrong often enough as most of us have done –
then pretty soon our guilt turns into something even worse –
and that’s a thing called shame.
Shame means we no longer just feel like we’ve done something wrong – now we start to feel that we are wrong. That’s what shame is all about.And Jesus’ early followers by and large were made up of
the shame-based people of his day.
They were the people who’d been cast out and thrown away –
They were the lepers, the prostitutes,
the public-sinners – they were the loners – the shameful ones –
the ones who believed they were: unlovable.
Jesus came to these people and told them that his Dad loved them too.
And when they came to believe that they cried buckets of tears.
One of the women cried so hard, the gospel says, she washed Jesus’ feet with her tears.
The unforgivable were forgiven. The unlovable were loved.
Finally, the third hole Smith identifies in people
is the hole dug deep inside us by our own human ego.
People are naturally selfish – self-centered –
And here again, being extremists –
many of us excelled in that department too.
But Jesus freed people from the bondage of self.
He taught them to love one another,
he taught them to turn the other cheek,
he taught them to share their lives and share their goods
with those who had less.
People saw Jesus do this – and they were amazed.
And then when he was gone,
they saw his people doing these very same things in his name.
They said: “See how these Christians love one another!”
Christianity should have died along with its leader –
It should have died with him there on the cross –
But instead of dying, that very symbol of defeat – the cross –
became the very symbol of God’s victory –
a new life lived not in self – but in God.
Jesus says, I am the way and I am the truth and I am the life.
He says, “Don’t be distressed – don’t worry about Step Two.
There are lots of rooms in my Father’s house –
and I’ve got one ready just for you.
Then he says: Follow me and I’ll show you the way home to God.
Listen to me and I’ll teach you all the truth you missed about God.
Learn from me –
Love like me
Live a whole new life in God –
a life that’s finally: sober, & happy & free.
It’s a life where, maybe if we do it right,
we won’t have to pass on to our own kids
some of the holes that were passed on to us.
Or if, like my son,
when they find themselves in one of those holes –
then at least we’ll be in it together;
and they won’t have to struggle so lost and alone
for nearly as long as some of us did.
(Jesus said:) “Don’t be afraid; don’t give in to your distress! You believe in God, then believe in me too.” Amen.