Sermon; 17 Pentecost/Proper 19B; Ps. 116:1-8
I'm going to take a break from Mark today. I know that we just got back into his gospel after spending seven weeks in Ephesians, but today is a special case.
As you know we are doing our part to participate in the Washington County Goes Purple (WCGP) campaign. I serve on the HARC Board where we look for positive ways to engage our various faith communities in issues we think important. I did the recovery walk a few weeks ago and tied a purple ribbon around a parking meter (my back was giving me fits, so that's about all I could handle). Some of you may have participated in the WCGP walk held this past Saturday morning. We have made an outward and visible sign of our support by using purple hangings this month. And today we have brought in Vicki Sterling and Emily Keller to meet with both teens and adults regarding this epidemic.
As I mentioned, I had originally planned on preaching from Mark's gospel and how today's passage obviously points us to the cross. But as I was perusing the readings of the day, I noticed that the psalm is particularly relevant to us right now.
The cords of death entangled me, the grip of the grave took hold of me; I came to grief and sorrow.
Is there any other passage that so succinctly describes the state of those besieged by opioid addiction? These first verses of Psalm 116 could probably serve as the focal point of addiction and the road to recovery.
We are entangled by the cords of death, and are in the grip of the grave. We ourselves may not have an addiction problem, but we may know someone who does, whether family or friend. Both our community and larger society certainly have an addiction problem. And where this crisis affects society and community, it affects us here at St. John's.
The opioid epidemic was the topic of the HARC gathering last week. There were three things I took away from that discussion.
First was my own sense of hopelessness, or helplessness. This crisis is so big and so overwhelming that sometimes I don't even know where to start. How do we deal with a crisis that has its roots in the medical/pharmaceutical industry where doctors have been allowed to become legal drug pushers? How do we deal with a crisis in which medical companies main focus is the bottom line? How do we deal with a system that puts company profits over the well-being of people. How do we deal with a system where drug company CEO's defend raising prices anywhere from 400 to 5000 percent as being a “moral imperative to make money.” How do we deal with a system that continually cuts aid to mental health and rehab facilities?
I don't have the answers to those questions. All I can do is look at it and say, “Where do we even begin?”
Second was part of a response to those concerns and that sense of hopelessness and/or helplessness I voiced during the meeting by Rabbi Ari Plost. As I expressed where I was personally with this situation others nodded in agreement. People who spoke after me said, “Ditto,” or, “What he said.” Rabbi Ari replied, “In my tradition we are reminded that God does not call us to finish every task. But neither are we at liberty to desist in working for what is right.”
And I shouldn't let my feelings of hopelessness/helplessness, or of being overwhelmed by the enormity of it all, deter me from doing something. To borrow a metaphor, we are faced with the vastness of a crisis that has washed thousands of people up onto a desolate shore. It is now our job to throw them back into living water. We may not save all the starfish, but we can certainly save some.
Third, besides educating ourselves and our children about this crisis, we need to be a place of support. As the body of Christ, as the embodiment of God on earth, it is our job to live into the words of the rest of this psalm.
Gracious is the Lord and righteous; our God is full of compassion.
We must have compassion for those afflicted by opioids.
The Lord watches over the innocent; I was brought very low, and he helped me.
Not all addicts are innocent. But I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of them didn't wake up one day and say, “I think I'll go pop some pills and become an addict.” People caught in the trap of addiction have been brought very low. We need to find ways to help.
I hope that if we do these things – recognize the problem, do something to alleviate it, and become a place of support – we will indeed be a safe place where people can see and experience God's love and respect of their human dignity. And by doing these things, we just might hear people say, “For you have rescued my life from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.”
Today we have Emily Keller and Vicki Sterling with us to help us understand a little about the crisis. Education is certainly one concrete thing we can do. Hopefully, with this information, persistence, and a bit of hope, we will be able to put more than a few people back into the waters of life.