(This sermon was delivered to a group recovering from alcohol and drug addiction.)
Now you might have noticed on the hymn sheets that the title chosen for tonight’s lessons is Aliens Anonymous. I guess being aliens is just one more thing we’ve got to recover from! Beam me up, Scottie!
But the gospel does talk about Jesus & his followers feeling like aliens; and so too does our Big Book reading. The Book notes that most of us suffered with a feeling deep inside that we never quite belonged.
Like many of us here tonight, Bill Wilson suffered those same feelings.
And also, like many of us, those feelings started for him when he was still very young – long before he ever took his first drink.
You see, his father abandoned the family when Bill was 9 and Bill watched his old man take off for the West Coast, never to return.
Bill was devastated – but he said he, “hid the wound and never talked about it with anybody.”
He took his pain inside where no one could see how badly he hurt.
His pain was private – he licked his wounds alone.
A year later, Bill’s mother left home too – she took his sister, but not him – and don’t you know that when she did that, he retreated still further inside himself.
He was abandoned – and inside Bill Wilson was ripe for the forgetting and even for the oblivion that alcohol and drugs would later bring him.
Bill drank and used drugs for some 15 years. In the beginning, it eased his pain and gave him false courage – It brought a much-needed sense of belonging.
But the friend & the comforter that he found in the bottle soon turned against him – and when it turned, it did so with a vengeance. As the problems and pains in his life worsened, Bill did the only thing he knew how to do: he retreated further inside himself.
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Now I give that quick, little sketch of Bill Wilson’s emotional or feeling life because I want to share with you the story that Bill always shared whenever he got up to speak in front of an AA group. It’s the story of how Bill felt inside when his old drinking buddy Ebby showed up unexpectedly in his kitchen and brought him the good news of how he had found recovery from his battle with alcohol.
And as we hear Bill describe his inner feelings, I hope we can each tune in and listen to see if some of his insides don’t match our own – Because I think this is perhaps the best description I’ve ever heard of how it feels to be trapped in addiction.
Like tonight’s hymn, Bill “felt about as low as any man could go.”
He’d tried and failed at treatment three times, and he said that by the time Ebby came to see him, he felt like his alcoholism had him backed into the recesses of a deep and very dark cave. And in the very back of that cave, he felt himself chained hand and foot to a wall. He couldn’t free himself no matter how hard he pulled or how hard he tried.
And Bill said he could see his family standing at the mouth of that cave, calling to him – encouraging him – begging him to come out and join them – but try as he might, he just couldn’t break free.
And now here’s the piece I want us to hear.
Bill said that something happened to him INSIDE on the day Ebby showed up in his kitchen. Ebby was 60 days sober and Bill knew that he was every bit as bad or worse an alcoholic than he was – and yet there he sat – a miracle – sitting right across the table from him and telling his story of how he’d gotten sober.
Bill described his feelings something like this: he said it was as if my friend had somehow broken free from his own cave – a cave that was just as deep and just as dark as my own
– and now he’d somehow made his way into mine.
Now here he was loosening my chains,
taking hold of my hands
and telling me, he knew a way out if only I was willing to follow and do what he had done.
First time I heard that story I knew exactly what Bill Wilson was talking about.
First time I heard it I was newly sober and I heard someone describing what it felt like to be me inside – trapped, lost and alone.
On the outside our stories may have been different – but inside they were exactly the same.
Inside, I wonder if all our stories aren’t the same.
And tonight’s gospel story picks up on that same theme –
It’s the story of how the followers of Jesus were feeling just after their friend & leader had died and left them all alone – The gospel writers tell us they were feeling orphaned and afraid – wandering around Jerusalem like aliens.
What we’re finishing tonight is the season of Easter –
If you’re an obsessive compulsive and counting, tonight is the seventh and last Sunday after Easter. And while Easter gets a lot of attention, the season that comes after it usually does not.
But it’s a really important season – and maybe it’s an especially important time for us alcoholics and addicts.
See this is a season when the followers of Jesus finally “get it themselves.”
A season where they find victory in defeat and build new lives out of what looks to all the world like failure and death.
A season where they change deep inside – where they make the kind of spiritual changes that the book says we need to make if we’re to have any real hope of staying sober.
They come to recognize God as present in their lives and able to do for them what they could not do for themselves –but he’s present and he’s doing it in a whole new way.
You know, I’ve been in this field for what’s getting to feel like a pretty long time. And I’ve watched literally thousands & thousands of alcoholics come through treatment.
And so many of these men and women seem to do real well while they’re here in treatment and going through the process.
While they’re here, they’re saying all the right things.
They’re looking & sounding really good –But that’s on the outside.
How about inside? What’s happening inside their own cave?
Are they honestly surrendering their lives to the God of their understanding when they get to Step 3?
Are they fearlessly facing their pains and opening their wounds – sharing them honestly in Step 5?
Are they being set free deep inside like Bill Wilson was – and are they picking up the spiritual tools and following the spiritual path that’s been laid out before them?
Time will answer that question for each of us just as it did for these followers of Jesus.
See, they too had done real well while Jesus was with them. They’d lived off his strength and he’d been the one supplying them with their courage.
But when he died – they all beat a hasty retreat. They were ready to give up on their dream and head back to their caves. And what we hear during these seven weeks or so after Easter are stories of how they found their new life and new hope.
How they found that Jesus was still with them – but with them in a whole new way.
And what we hear in John’s gospel is how it was they experienced the one we call: the Risen Jesus.
Jesus says: Father, now keep these followers of mine under your protection.
When I was with them, I protected them – but now I’m returning to you – and now they’re afraid they’re going to be left here alone – and that’s why they’re scared.
Father, they feel like aliens in this world – just like I sometimes felt like an alien – but this is your world and this is where your work needs to be done.
Don’t take them out of the world, Father – send them back into it.
Let them “live life on life’s terms.”
Let them take “this sinful world as it is and not as they would have it.”
But as they go into it, day by day, let them be and let them feel united with me just as I am united with you.
Jesus doesn’t promise us that things will be easy in our recovery – but he does promise loud and clear that he will be with us through it all. He promises that we will never be alone. Not now and not ever again. No more feeling like aliens –
Not as long as we’re willing to take hold on to his hand and willing to follow him back into the caves of our fellow addicts and help them break free just like Ebby did with Bill.
And please don’t wait till you have a year under your belt before you go and try to help someone. It’s not in our heads that we’ll meet and come to know this new and Risen Jesus – but we meet him in the helping of others.
Ebby had only 60 days sober when he made his call – but that was 60 days more than Bill had –
And Bill could see and feel the miracle sitting right there in front of him.
Bill heard Ebby speak his truth – he didn’t preach to him but only told him his truth –
that he too had felt like an alien – drunk, trapped, and so very much alone –
and that he too was approached by a man who said he knew a way out
and he told him that he wasn’t very religious but that this thing was spiritual and it had worked for him and maybe it would work for Bill.
Inside, Bill started coming back to life that day.
When you’re desperate, finding hope is everything.
I want to close now with a poem that was written by Sam Shoemaker.
Shoemaker was the Episcopal priest who helped Ebby Thatcher and Bill Wilson get sober. Bill said that except for Step One – all of the other 11 Steps came to him straight through this man. He called him his greatest spiritual teacher and this poem by Shoemaker’s sums up his philosophy of a spiritual life lived in service to the world.
It’s called: I Stand by the Door and its Shoemaker’s cry to the church – he prays that the church will never be so preoccupied with Easter and with all its theology — and with all of its doctrines and with all its holiness — that it forgets the ones who are still out there – the ones who are lost and alone – the aliens in our world who haven’t yet found their own Easter hope. Shoemaker writes:
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out.
The door is the most important door in the world –
It is the door through which men walk when they find God.
There is no use my going way inside and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
is only the wall where the door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind men,
With outstretched, groping hands,
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it. So I stand by the door.
The most tremendous thing in the world is for men to find that door – the door to God.
The most important thing that any man can do is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands and put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks And opens to the man’s own touch.
Men die outside the door, as starving beggars die on cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter. Die for want of what is within their grasp. They live on the other side of it – they die because they have not found it.
Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it, And open it, and walk in, and find Him. So I stand by the door.
Go in great saints; go all the way in –
Go way down into the cavernous cellars,
And way up into the spacious attics.
It is a vast, roomy house, this house where God is.
Go into the deepest of hidden casements,
Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.
Some must inhabit those inner rooms
And know the depths and heights of God,
And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.
Sometimes I take a deeper look in.
Sometimes venture in a little farther,
But my place seems closer to the opening. So I stand by the door.
I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not yet even found the door.
You can go in too deeply and stay in too long
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him and know He is there,
But not so far from men as not to hear them,
And remember they are there too.
Where? Outside the door –
Thousands of them. Millions of them.
But – more important for me –
One of them, two of them, ten of them.
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So I shall stand by the door and wait
For those who seek it.
I had rather be a doorkeeper. So I stand by the door.
The psalm says:
“Out of the depths, Lord, I call to you
Let me feel you even in this darkness.”
There is a door that leads out of our caves and out of our darkness and into God’s light.
That door is Jesus.