By Fr. Bill Wigmore
(This sermon was delivered to a group recovering from alcohol and drug addiction.)
I don’t know if you’ve seen the Sunday Statesman –
but it seems our little service here has made it onto the front page.
The story’s about “the Easter Resurrection of the drunks & druggies,”
but it tells some of my own personal story too.
And these days, any time a priest gets his picture in the paper
and the story doesn’t involve
either a woman or an altar boy
I figure we must be doing something right!
Thank God for recovery – otherwise, that would have been a very different article!
Maybe you’ve heard the expression “the eyes are the windows of the soul.”
Well many years ago, I took part in a pretty powerful “eye exercise”
during a spiritual retreat with a group of fellow addicts.
The facilitator had us all line up in a big long row
and then one by one each of us had to stand in front of each man and woman in line
and look deeply into their eyes.
No words were allowed – just look into the eyes of the person standing in front of you.
And the instructions he gave us were these:
“Keep looking straight into each person’s eyes
until you can see God present within them –
and if and when you see him there,
just simply embrace the person in front of you and then move on to the next.”
It wasn’t a comfortable exercise –
not for those of us doing the looking or, when it came our turn,
for those of us baring our souls and being looked at.
“Would I really be able to see God in them –
and when people were looking at me – what if they couldn’t see God in there?”
“What if all they saw was the dark hole inside that so many of us addicts know real well?”
But as I went down the line –
spending a minute or two in silence and staring deep into each one’s eyes –
I saw it.
He was there.
In the eyes of the young, he was there full of energy & boundless optimism.
Behind the eyes of the old he appeared too
but looking back at me with a bit more wisdom and understanding
brought about mostly through years of suffering.
And he was there but hidden still deeper in the eyes of the ones full of shame.
By the end of the exercise lots of us were in tears.
Nobody’d ever looked at us that deeply and still loved us.
And we’d never looked at anyone else that long or that intently – trying only to love them.
We learned that the eyes really are the windows to the soul
and that our windows open both ways.
Tonight, I think there’s something of this going on in our story.
Tonight we hear the Easter story as told by John –
And John must have known about that eye exercise
cause that’s what I think his story’s trying to tell us:
He wants to know:
What do we see on Easter morning when we look into the tomb?
Do we see God bringing new life and new meaning into our dead end world –
Or do we go away from there just as lost and confused as when we first arrived and do we go back to living a dead-end-life lived without hope?
And for the three characters we meet in tonight’s gospel story:
for Peter, for John, and for Mary – life had become a dead end.
All their hope was gone.
The events of those last few days in Jerusalem had crushed them.
They’d hoped that Jesus was the long awaited messiah –
but on Friday & Saturday of that week, things weren’t lookin’ too promising.
From a safe distance, Peter had watched his hopes unravel.
He watched Jesus being arrested and tried.
Watched him mocked by the crowds and spit on by the soldiers.
He watched as they stripped him, and beat him,
and finally nailed his broken body to a cross.
Peter watched from the shadows
while his closest friend died an agonizing & humiliating death.
But before Jesus died,
Peter had the added pain of three times denying he’d ever even known his friend.
When tonight’s gospel opens, I doubt if Peter felt he had much left to live for.
And maybe some of us reached a bottom like that in our own stories too. –
Feeling hopeless and helpless – feeling like we might as well be dead.
If our addictions brought us down that low,
then this Easter resurrection business might hold some special meaning for us.
Now the reading says, “In the half-light of the morning,”
someone comes knocking on Peter’s door.
At first, Peter probably thinks it’s the Roman soldiers come to arrest him too.
(He’s more than a little paranoid and some of us here can probably relate to that too!
Peter’s afraid to answer the phone or to look through that little peep-hole in his door.)
But then he recognizes the voice calling from outside.
It’s Jesus’ friend Mary from Magdala and she’s crying, she’s hysterical.
She says something about “a stone being moved and Jesus’ body taken away,
but she doesn’t know where they’ve taken him.”
So Peter and John get up some courage and they come down
and they start running toward the tomb.
Peter’s getting a little old, and he can’t quite keep up with young John –
so John gets there first.
The reading says, “John then stoops down and he’s the first to look into the tomb.”
What he sees is very strange. –
He sees only Jesus’ burial cloths scattered on the floor,
but the writer says, he doesn’t go in –
He waits for the more senior but slower Peter to catch up.
And when Peter does arrive, he goes right into the tomb.
Like John, he too sees the strips of burial cloth on the floor;
but now, we’re given a little more detail of the scene inside the empty tomb.
We’re told that Peter also sees the cloth they’d used to cover Jesus’ head
and it’s lying rolled up in a corner by itself.
Peter wonders what all this means?
Then John also enters the tomb and he sees all these things as well.
And the gospel writer says, “He sees – and he believes.”
But while the writer tells us about John’s believing,
notice that we’re never told about Peter’s.
We’re never told whether Peter believed then or not;
but the strong implication is that he still doubted.
Maybe Peter denied Jesus for a fourth time.
So, while John believes and while perhaps Peter’s practicing to be The First Agnostic saying, “well, maybe Jesus is alive and maybe he isn’t;”
the story says that neither one of them understood what had happened
and so they left the tomb and made their way back home.
Then the story continues with Mary coming back to the tomb a second time.
Peter and John are gone now.
She’s alone and she’s still crying.
And then, just like Peter and just like John, the writer says,
she too bends down and peeks her head into the tomb.
Now we’re probably starting to catch on to what the gospel writer’s up to here:
Three people look in the tomb –
Three people come away seeing three different things.
Three people look into the tomb – but only one of them sees through the eyes of faith.
This gospel story isn’t meant to be read as an exact description
of the events of Easter morning.
This is a gospel story meant to teach us a lesson about faith.
It’s about three people, each seeing the very same thing
and yet each one responding to the Easter event very differently.
What the writer’s up to is he’s asking his readers – just like he’s asking you and me,
“What do we see when we look into Jesus’ tomb?”
Do we see through the eyes of faith and believe –
or do we only look through physical eyes
and so we doubt & walk away just as hopeless & confused as when we arrived?
Now notice what Mary sees when she finally looks in.
Her vision is very different.
She sees two heavenly messengers – two angels.
One’s seated where Jesus’ head had rested and the other, where his feet had been.
And these messengers ask Mary, “Why are you sad? Why are you crying?”
Mary’s problem, it seems, is that she’s tied her faith to finding the body of Jesus.
For her, faith is all wrapped up in seeing Jesus’ body once again.
She reminds me a little of Tom Cruise in that Jerry McGuire movie saying:
“Show me the body!”
“If you’ve moved him,” she says to the angels,
“tell me where you’ve put him, so I can take him away.”
And, just then, she turns and she supposes that she sees a gardener standing there.
And still she’s focused on finding Jesus’ body, so again she says:
“Please, mister, if you’ve moved him, tell me where you’ve put him so I can take him away.”
Then listen to what happens next.
The man she thinks is a gardener simply says her name.
“Mary,” he says. / That’s all he says. / Only her name: “Mary.”
But when she hears him say it, she recognizes instantly who he is.
And what the gospel writer’s telling his readers is that
if we want to experience Easter –
we shouldn’t go looking for Jesus’ body –
We shouldn’t tie our faith to finding his body.
As one theologian puts it –
“don’t confuse the meaning of resurrection with resuscitation.”
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Faith comes when we open our hearts
and we enter into a new personal relationship with the Risen Jesus.
And the faith and the trust that we put in him,
God will honor and he won’t ever let us down;
just as God honored Jesus’ faith
and didn’t let him down – but, instead – he raised him up on that first Easter morning.
The reading says, Mary turned around – and when she did –
she saw not a gardener but she saw Jesus standing there.
Once she hears him say her name, she recognizes him instantly.
Easter isn’t hunting for Jesus’ body like a kid hunting for Easter eggs!
Easter’s being willing to let God come into our lives and turn our lives around.
As alcoholics and addicts – Easter’s turning our will and our lives over to the care of God and letting him lead us out of the tomb of our addictions.
God asks us to stop looking backwards – stop crying over the past and over the pain –
“ Let go – turn around!” he says –
and when we do – we meet Jesus standing right where we are.
We can meet him in our room in detox – meet him out at the Ranch – meet him at home, or in the Oxford house we’re living in.
When Jesus was alive – he brought people hope.
He especially brought hope to the hopeless.
He brought it to the poor and to the outcasts.
He brought it to the tax collectors and to the prostitutes –
the ones who’d been cut off and shut out and excluded from their own community.
They’d been told they weren’t worthy to come inside and to be with God;
and they believed the lie.
But Jesus came into their lives
and he told them they were worth more than they could ever imagine –
He said they were God’s very own sons and daughters –
worth more to Him than they would ever know.
Now did all of that die with Jesus on the cross?
That’s the question the gospel writer John wants us to answer.
That’s the question he asks of the three people in his story.
It’s the same Easter question God asks us tonight.
We’ll never find God looking through our physical eyes alone.
We’ll never think our way to him either.
But if we can just be still and listen for a moment.
If we can just listen in our morning Quiet Time till we hear Jesus calling our name.
Just let him call our name – even once – we’ll recognize his Voice.
Like Mary, it’ll be a Voice that sounds strangely familiar.
Maybe like the Voice of an older brother or a wise old friend.
It’ll be a Voice that tells us we’re forgiven and we’re loved.
We’re forgiven and we’re loved in spite of anything & everything
we’ve ever done or ever failed to do.
That’s the Easter story. That’s our story.
That what looked to all the world like failure and death –
put in God’s hands has become new life.
What drunk or drug addict in his right mind can’t relate to that?
And so tonight, we too stoop down and we look into the tomb.
This time let’s look not so much with our eyes – but with our hearts –
Let’s look and see how God has done for us what we could never do for ourselves.
Each and every one of us here – a miracle back from the dead.
God’s raised us up and brought us into a new and sober life with him –
A life he now asks us to go out and to share with all our brothers and sisters –
especially the ones still stuck in their tombs.
“Go look into their eyes” he says – “the weak, the poor, the frightened – the hopeless – tell ‘em what you can see in them because someone first saw it in you and believed.”
The tomb is empty – but now our hearts are not –
now we see a new world filled with his love.
The Lord has risen – The Lord has risen indeed! The Lord has risen in us!