February 2024

SERMON: Lean on Me

Grace is ... poured out freely, available to all of us, and it is completely unwarranted, unearned, and separate from merit. Do we have to be perfect ... ?

As we continue our Lenten journey into the desert, we become aware of suffering and pain. There is probably no greater source of suffering than addiction in its many forms….not only for the addict, but for the people who are close to the addict and are affected in a multitude of ways.  We cannot turn on the news without hearing about our latest drug crises of opioids, fentanyl and other street drugs, but alcohol continues to be the most abused drug.  The dealers for some of the most abused drugs such as oxycodone are doctors.  This epidemic continues as does the suffering that accompanies it.

Several years ago, a friend of mine who was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune suggested that I go listen to one of his colleagues, Julia Keller, who would be speaking about her novel at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore.  Being a writer myself, I was delighted to go.  Julia, it turns out is not your average bear when it comes to producing the written word.  She won a Pulitzer in 2005 for asking how one runs away from the sky in her coverage of the Utica hurricane, and this might have been the first time that the Pulitzer was awarded for narrative journalism.  She has also taught at Princeton, Notre Dame, The University of Chicago and Harvard.  No lightweight credentials here.

I arrived early for her presentation, and settled into a seat away for 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 dye 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.  As soon as she opened her mouth, I could tell that Julia, haloed in curls, was completely grounded in depth and intelligence. I found myself hanging on every word she said, and I took copious notes.

Julia writes with 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 breath-taking 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 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 it is her most astonishing quality is her visceral and deep love for her people and her impoverished, addicted, messed up, baffling, hurting West Virginia people.

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, and in Arizona there have been up to 400 monthly deaths from opioid overdoses.  The opioid crisis in Arizona has been declared a public health emergency.  We cannot afford to remain ignorant of this crisis.

I have seen the desert of drug addiction up close and personal as I spent twenty years of my career creating and directing treatment programs for alcoholism and drug addiction.  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 that addiction is 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 their loved ones.

In our Biblical story, we find a man who has been sick for thirty-eight years.  That’s a long time.  Jesus’ approach is interesting in that he does not assume that the man wants to be well.  Recovery from addiction depends on the willingness of the addict to step into a new way of life devoid of previous crutches and rich in responsibility and accountability.  The man seems a little whiney when he complains that no one is lifting him into the pool, and other people are butting in line.  The “poor me” syndrome can be a killer.

Jesus is not falling for the whininess, and instructs the man to pick up his own bed.  No enabling behavior here.  And don’t we believe that Jesus is right in the middle of the opioid epidemic, asking us if we want to be healed?  

The two-fold aspect of addiction involves the addict and also those who prevent the addict from healing by rushing in to pick up their beds for them.  These enablers do for the addict what they can and should do for themselves, all the while appearing very noble and longsuffering.  In treatment, this is called “loving someone to death.”

How much energy do we expend  thinking that we know what’s best for another person?  Are we not a people who profess a belief that we are in the everlasting arms of God who knows our every need, fear and want?

Does his mean that we 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.  We need more vocational schools, and affordable treatment for both addicts and their loved ones.  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 our own church.

There is ongoing debate about whether or not we should reach out to people who are the cause of their own distress.  Should first responders be required to administer a life-saving injection to a fallen addict? Should doctors be held accountable for over-prescribing pain medications?  Should we lock up the addicts and throw away the key or should we provide more treatment opportunities?  How do we help grandparents who are raising the children of their drug addicted offspring?  The debate can go on and on.  Julia Keller raises the question:  “What do we owe 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 provide environments for healing, but we let others pick up their own beds and do their own walking.

When we find healing of any sort and realize that we have been touched by the divine, we find ourselves in a state of grace.  Grace is many things, and can be part of a person’s demeanor, used to describe a person who seems to almost float through the world, exhibiting kindness, humility and calm.  Grace appears to be effortless, and is probably what Lord Byron had in mind when he wrote:

She walks in Beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and bright.

Meet in her aspect and her eye:

Thus, mellowed to that tender light

Which Heaven to gaudy day denies.

Grace is a gift from God, given freely, with no debt, interest or conditions attached.  It is poured out freely, available to all of us, and it is completely unwarranted, unearned, and separate from merit.  Do we have to be perfect to sit in this sanctuary?  Need we stay away from church when we are experiencing difficulty?  What if we are having marital problems, what if our children are on drugs, or what if we fear we might burst into tears due to the acuteness of our grief?  Are these reasons to stay away?  These are not reasons to stay away from church, these are reasons to come and experience the grace of God.

In the Lenten season, the grit of ash and the dusty dusky dirt remind us of the possibilities and the limitations inherent in our human being. We are reminded of our mortality, not that we might shrink in fear but that we might recall the grace conferred in our human status and stature.  We are reminded that we are created of God to be human, a reality forgotten and obscured by our headstrong striving for more success, more money, more recognition, more time in the spotlight.

We forget that we are in relationship.  We do this most often in trivial Lenten habits:  the giving up of what for most of us is sheer luxury—food, drink, or nervous habit—or the embracing of the similar luxury of a little extra service to those we ignore the rest of the year, and  we demonstrate all the vanity of our own spiritual fragility.

If God does love, as we proclaim, is it not possible that God also grieves?  Is it possible that God grieves a life sacrificed to opioids or overindulgence or litanies of excuses.  Does God weep when we fail to pick up our beds and walk away from negativity, toxic relationships, and broken promises?

Lent is a time for preparing newcomers for relationship with God in the church, and it is a time for repairing relationships within the community.  It is in both dimensions, preparation for companionship, for life in community.

Living into relationship with God is the most profound Lenten discipline. Lent is a time for intentional work on our relationship with the divine.   God feels earth’s sorrows; God shares earth’s work; God knows earth’s joy.  In relationship we share everything.  

It is not we alone who need to turn around in this season of Lent.  God wants to come in from the distance, and longs to be included again. God wants to share our lives again.  Maybe this year God will return.

We might ask, are any of us “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 largess.  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.


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Hide yourself in God, so when a man wants to find you he will have to go there first.


February 2024

SERMON: Lean on Me

Grace is ... poured out freely, available to all of us, and it is completely unwarranted, unearned, and separate from merit. Do we have to be perfect ... ?

Rev. Dr. Tina Campbell


February 2024

SERMON: Valentines and Broken Hearts

We can deal with our strong feelings or we can run. We need other people to deal with feelings. These moments require us to get over ourselves long enough to acknowledge and honor those around us as a first step.

Rev. Dr. Tina Campbell


February 2024

SERMON: Shepherds, Caregivers and Caring

Sheepherders and Shepherdesses are caregivers and first responders. They are in a state of constant vigilance, with unseen burdens and mental health risks. All need community support.

Rev. Dr. Tina Campbell