September 2023

Sermon: LEAN ON ME

The crucial role that personal responsibility plays in the healing journey

Psalm 23; John 5:1-9

The American opioid crisis has been highlighted by several recent Netflix series.  “Painkiller” is an ugly presentation of greed by the Purdue Pharma Company, the Sackler family, and the equally greedy lawyers who defend them.  A documentary called “Pharmacist” portrays doctors as drug dealers, and even the documentary about the Alex Murdaugh trial as a strong reference to opioid addiction.

Several years ago a friend of mine suggested that I go over to the Poisoned Pen bookstore to hear former Chicago Tribune writer, Julia Keller, speak about her writing.  I was familiar with the store, because I had gone there to purchase a book about one of my inmates who had murdered her mother and two husbands.  That inmate was my chapel clerk!

Julia Keller, it turns out, is not your average bear when it comes to producing the written word.  She won a Pulitzer in 2005 for her coverage of the Utica hurricane, asking how one runs away from the sky.  This might have been the first time the Pulitzer was awarded for narrative journalism.  She also taught at Princeton, Notre Dame, the University of Chicago, and Harvard.  No light weight credentials here.

I arrived early for her presentation, and settled into a seat away from the rest of the audience, wanting to take advantage of a small table where I could take notes.  The table had been set up for Julia to sign books following her remarks, and provided me with a bird’s eye view of both Julia and the audience, many of whom were die hard fans of her mystery novels.  Julia arrived with the person hosting the event, and they perched themselves on director’s chairs facing the audience.  The book store representative exuded nervous energy, talked too much and asked rather inane questions, but that did not distract me from the fact that Julia, haloed in curls, was completely grounded in depth and intelligence.  I found myself hanging on every word she said, and taking copious notes.

Julia and I had visited a lot of the same kind of places, the kind of places  that many people would rather avoid, averting their eyes to more pleasant landscapes and people.  Julia writes with a grit based in reality.  Her fan base loves her for her character Belfa Elkins, a fierce woman who is a County Prosecutor in impoverished West Virginia, Julia Keller’s home state.  Other than the breathtaking mountains, there is not a lot that is pretty about rural West Virginia, a state whose own natural resources have led to her un-doing.  Poverty and lack of opportunity combine to suffocate the spirit of the people who live in what can seem like hopeless circumstances.  The most impressive thing about Julia is not her obvious intellect or her genius for telling a tale, rather her most astonishing quality is her visceral and deep love for her people, her impoverished, addicted, messed up, baffling, hurting West Virginia people.  This is where our paths crossed.

Julia’s novel Fast Falls the Night is based on the true story of a small West Virginia town in which dozens of opioid overdoses take place in a twenty-four hour period of time. She approaches this deadly serious subject not as a simplistic black and white canvas, rather she approaches the issue with compassion and an understanding of the complex and hideous nature of drug addiction and its multi-dimensional impact.

The opioid epidemic is not unique to West Virginia.  In 2021, there were 2,006 deaths in Arizona that were the result of opioid overdoses.  Our state’s opioid crisis has been declared a public health emergency.  As a Christian community, can we afford to turn our backs on this epidemic.  Can we afford to have a simplistic black and white view of a complex problem?  Do we secretly have disdain for drug addicts?  Do we feel superior to those who seek relief from chronic physical, spiritual or psychological pain?

I have seen drug addiction up close and personal, and spent twenty years of my career creating and directing treatment programs for alcoholism and drug addiction.  Let me remind you that alcohol remains the most abused drug.  I have seen how addiction shatters the psyches of the addicts and the secondary effects of the numbed and crushed spirits of those who love the addict.  I believe addiction to be a disease, and that recovery from addiction is nothing short of a miracle, requiring a deeply spiritual base.  I also believe that addiction is a two-fold disease with implications for both the addict and his or her loved ones.

Let’s return to our text.  Jesus has come to Jerusalem, the location of the Temple, and the base for the religious leadership of the time.  In Jerusalem there is a pool known as Bethesda, and many sick people have come there to be healed.  There is a man lying beside the pool who has been sick for thirty-eight years.  When Jesus sees him, he realizes that he has been sick for a very long time, and Jesus walks up to the man, approaching him in a very direct way, asking “Do you want to be made well?”  Jesus does not assume that the man wants to be made well as some people prefer the comfort of the known, some enjoy being pitied or being dependent upon others.  It is difficult to impose healing on a person who is comfortable with the way things are as they are likely to sabotage any efforts to make changes.

Since this man has been sick for so long, maybe he isn’t really interested in being healed.  The sick man answers that he has no one to lift him into the pool, and complains that others are butting in line.  He avoids giving Jesus a direct answer, and seems to take no responsibility for his circumstances. He probably sounds a little whiney.

Jesus does not allow the man’s avoidance to deter him, and Jesus says, “Pick up your bed and walk.”  Notice that Jesus does not say, “Oh you poor thing, let me carry you to the pool.  Let me pay your rent.  Let me bail you out of jail.  Let me make excuses for you.”  Nor does he pick up the bed FOR the person who is ill.  He admonishes the man to pick up his OWN bed. He expects the sick man to do the hard work of his own healing.  Jesus often utters exhortations that require collaboration on the part of the people in need.  He puts the responsibility on the injured party when he says:  “Your faith has made you well” or “Go and sin no more.”  He doesn’t do the sometimes back breaking work of healing for them, rather he lets them know they have what it takes to be well and to be whole.  There is no indication that this man was particularly deserving of healing or that he ever thanked Jesus for his intervention.  And don’t we believe that Jesus is right in the middle of the opioid epidemic, asking us if we want to be healed, and admonishing us to pick up our beds and walk?

The two-fold aspect of addiction involves the addict and also those who prevent the addict from healing by rushing in to pick up the addict’s bed for them.  These enablers do for the addict what they can and should do for themselves, and often their motives appear to be very noble, sacrificial and well intended.  Often these bed carriers espouse Christian motives for their crippling behavior.  In treatment, we call it “loving someone to death.”  Jesus exemplifies a different kind of love, a love that respects a person enough to allow them to literally carry their own weight, to pick up their own bed and to walk into health, wholeness, and recovery.  There is no blind eyed denial on the part of Jesus, rather a sound investment in a reality based return to health and wholeness.

How much time do you suppose we frantically fritter away fretting about trying to manage the lives of others?  How much energy do we expend thinking we know what is best for another person. How many entitled twenty somethings are crippled by their well-meaning parents who allow them to live at home?  Are we not a people who profess a belief that we are in the everlasting arms of a God who knows our every need, fear and want?  Is it not God who leads us to still calm water, who restores our souls, who wants us to have goodness and mercy?  This is a God who will provide us with comfort.  Remember the words of our beautiful hymn:  “When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”

Does this mean that we just stand by and do nothing?  Of course not.  Julia Keller believes that her economically and psychologically depressed area of West Virginia is in desperate need of vocational schools that will lead to opportunities for employment.  Large corporations have been required to pay millions of dollars in damage for their part in the opioid addiction.  We need more affordable treatment for addicts and their loved ones.  We need to train more clergy to address the spiritual aspects of recovery.  We need to view addiction as a disease rather than a weakness of character, and we need to start telling the truth about unacceptable behavior.  The best place to start telling the truth is in church.

Many people who experience recovery from addiction find themselves uttering words like “made a decision to turn our life and our will over to the care of God” or “having had a spiritual awakening…”  Our spiritual yearnings and needs are raised in different ways.  Some find comfort in silence, and some in song.  Sometimes our spiritual issues leak out:  what is hope?  What will my life look like now?  How does God want me to respond to this?  Is God even listening to me?  Is God there?  I’ve never been very religious, but I believe…..  What will recovery look like?  How do I let go?  

There is an ongoing debate about whether or not we should reach out to people who are the cause of their own distress and decline.  Should first responders be required to administer a life saving injection of Narcan?  Should doctors be held accountable for over prescribing over priced medications?  Should we lock up the addicts and throw away the key or should we provide more treatment opportunities?  How do we help the grandparents who are raising the children of their drug addicted offspring?  The debate can go on and on and on.  Julia Keller raises the question:  “What do we owe to a person who brings their fate on themselves?”  Her answer is:  “We offer help as many times as people ask for it and work for it.”  She seems to understand Jesus’ message to the man at the pool.  We offer help, but we do not hover and we do not do the work for anyone else.  We might create environments of healing, but we allow others to pick up their own beds and do their own walking.

We might ask if any of us is “deserving” of God’s grace?  We try to account for the fact that our blessings far exceed our goodness.  We want to add things up, balance the books, find the bottom line, deserve the largesse.  We ponder, we strive, grapple, theorize.  And then we begin to abide:  curiously, gratefully, generously, trustingly, gracefully, peacefully, in the vast, divine unknown.  We become unsuspicious of our blessings, and instead begin to use them to enhance healing in ourselves and others.  We stop trying to do for others what they can do for themselves.  We shift the weight of our beds on our backs, and we walk, leaning on the everlasting arms, knowing that we are being led to green pastures. We let go and we let God.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives.  Amen.

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