“If One Member Suffers…”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis
26 August, 2018
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Overdose Awareness Sunday
1 Corinthians 12:12-26

Please pray with me:
Creator and lover of each one of us, we are here this morning because, whether we feel our life is whole or splintered, we are aware of our need for you and for each other. Our souls are hungry to hear your words of hope and love, of joy and peace. Move among us and open us up, then, so that whatever part of us is able to receive your word—our ears, our minds, our hearts—might absorb what you know we need to hear today. May the words of my mouth and the meditations in our hearts resonate with your Eternal Word to us in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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Today, many sister churches (in the UCC and other denominations) will also focus on our theme of Overdose Awareness, and addiction or substance use disorders more broadly. International Overdose Awareness Day, which is observed on August 31st, was launched in 2001 by Sally J. Finn at the Salvation Army in Melbourne, Australia. It’s grown over the past nearly two decades, with faith communities and governments in a few countries now promoting the enhanced awareness that can begin to dismantle the stigmas and prejudices against those with addictions, and for those who have died or suffered permanent injury as a result of drug overdose. It’s also about acknowledging the grief and pain felt by their families and friends, so that more complete healing can happen for everyone.

Despite the fact that our country is currently embroiled in an epidemic of overdose, it’s not a very comfortable or easy subject to tackle—especially in a one-hour church service. Especially when there’s so much to say, so much to be done. And especially when some of us just want to get away from the tough issues of this world, to focus on subjects that feel more uplifting, less challenging.

But statistically speaking, the majority of us here are, or have been, personally affected by a substance use disorder at some point in our life—whether our own dependency or addiction, or that of a family member, a colleague, or someone else we love or are in close relationship with. Many of us have experienced the death of someone we knew to an overdose. And if we don’t know anyone personally, there is someone in our circle of friends and extended family who does, especially living here in New Hampshire. Our state has the third-highest rate of deaths by overdose in the nation; Ohio and West Virginia are the only two states ahead of us.

A priest in Ohio, speaking about the impact on his own ministry and community observed, “Over the years, I would estimate that two thirds of the human hurt I have encountered in the people I serve has directly resulted from active addiction—or from living with or having lived with an addicted person.” That was more than a decade ago, and since then the epidemic of addiction to opiates and other drugs has only mushroomed.

But prescription and illicit drugs can’t be blamed for the majority of the challenges families face with substance use problems. According to one recent study “among clergy members, 38% believe that alcohol abuse or alcoholism is involved in half or more of the family problems they encounter.”[1] Alcohol truly is a quiet culprit and hidden killer, because it’s such a socially acceptable drug, important to so many of our festive functions.

Not that that’s a new reality: remember the Temperance Movement in the 1800s and early 1900s? That was fueled largely by church folk grappling with the scourge of alcoholism in their homes, families, and communities. Did you know that our use of grape juice instead of wine for communion can be traced at least in part to Dr. Thomas B. Welch—a dentist and Methodist lay preacher—who developed a juice pasteurization process in the late 1860s that provided “unfermented wine” for the churches? The idea took a couple decades to take hold (demonstrating how slowly cultural change tends to happen), but it’s worth noting that most of the churches I’ve served to this day use Welch’s grape juice.

Addiction and alcohol dependency had become such a social thorn in the side of this nation by the turn of the 20th century that a coalition of legislators from the Republican, Democrat, and Prohibition parties banded together and worked to pass the 18th Amendment to our U.S. Constitution. Prohibition was the law of our land for 13 years, from 1920 until 1933. There’s a sense in which moral judgment against addiction is at least penciled into our national DNA.

But recent scientific discoveries and explanations of the brain’s response to drugs are helpful in understanding what happens biologically in addiction, making it clear that personal choice and willpower are often less compelling forces than biological composition. This should help to defuse the moral condemnation that so commonly attaches to addicts, and often to their families. It should help us as a society to respond with greater compassion, less eagerness to punish and a deeper desire to see healing, wholeness restored.

There was a Public Service Announcement from the “Just Say No” campaign back in the 1980s—some of you may remember it. It was a simple but arresting image of a frying pan on a hot stove, with a very serious voice saying, “This is your brain.” Next, an egg being cracked and dropped into the pan, with the voice over: “This is your brain on drugs.” As the egg sizzles and pops, the voice adds, “Any questions?”

I don’t know how much of a disincentive that commercial was to the teenagers who were presumably the intended audience—because, as researchers have discovered since that time, the adolescent/young adult brain doesn’t tend to buy such fear tactics, and risk-taking, experimentation, and exploration is endemic to being human at that age. Still, the moral innuendo was clear: if you choose to do this, you deserve judgment and condemnation.

More recent studies have shown us that addiction is very often genetically predetermined: just as in any set of individuals some will be genetically more predisposed to cancer or dementia or asthma or heart disease, there will be some who simply become addicted more easily than others. Similarly, some of us are more genetically predisposed to wrestle with mental health issues. This is worth noting because quite often, substance use disorders develop as a result of underlying mental health issues. Two individuals could have equal amounts of willpower or moral fortitude, and one will simply not be able to resist the biology of addiction. It has to do with the limbic system (which is basically the pleasure-center of the brain) and dopamine production (a feel-good chemical your body produces to provide a sense of calm and wellbeing). For many addicts, the limbic system and dopamine production effectively get hijacked by the chemical effect of the drug, so that the only way the person can feel “normal” is to take more of the drug because their dopamine production center fails where another person’s continues to function. (That’s oversimplified in some ways, but I think the essence is accurate.)

Human beings have always used alcohol and other drugs in search of more pleasurable experiences. It’s human nature to avoid pain—and more than that, pain avoidance has long been actively promoted in our culture: that’s how so many opiates and other painkillers were prescribed and circulated in the first place. It might be easy to dismiss all controlled- or consciousness-altering substances as being forbidden fruits that we should disallow altogether. But as we learned from Prohibition, that approach brings with it a host of other, equally troubling and often more violent outcomes. Our culture is not inclined to sacrifice the rights or liberties of the individual who doesn’t struggle with addiction for the sake of those who do. And that creates tension. That’s life in community.

The Bible is clear and consistent from the very earliest verses that we are, indeed, designed to tend not just to our own wellbeing, but also to the health and wellbeing of others. We are each other’s keepers, called to love our neighbors as ourselves, as an expression of our love for the God who has endowed each one of us with life that is equally precious. Our Scripture lesson this morning proclaims, “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”[2] As Christians, we are called to turn the tables on society’s approach to the “undesirables”, the “unclean”, the “problem people”, following Jesus’ example of reaching out to and ministering first and foremost to them, fashioning a community of welcome and healing where the greater power of God’s love prevails over the human impulse to sit in judgment and condemn those we despise.

There are some who will testify that their faith in God, or their relationship with Jesus Christ, is what helped them to overcome their addiction or drug dependency—and in those instances, what can we do but rejoice and give thanks? But being a believer or participating in a faith community does not immunize us against addiction. Nor does it always protect us from the ways that substance use disorders can creep in and destroy a family or friendships. But a knowledgeable and caring faith community can create a supportive place of welcome and healing, one where the suffering can learn and heal—not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. Sadly, whether from a sense of inadequacy, or emerging from a misguided sense of righteousness, too many Christians and churches have expressed judgment and condemnation instead of Christ-like compassion and an invitation to healing toward those in search of divine restoration.

In this time when our state and nation are grappling with an addiction crisis, where people are literally dying for lack of a faithful, life-giving response, this is an issue God wants you and me to wrestle with. Jesus did not avoid the troubled individuals and distressing social dynamics of his day. Rather, he embraced them with love, and hope, and healing. It was by courageously engaging the messy social matters of life that Jesus lifted people up, helped them to rise from the ash-heaps of their broken human experiences, overcome their feelings of failure and rejection, and showed them the more powerful, restorative love of God.

He was reviled by religious and political leaders because his approach upended the social order and made room for everyone, including the so-called “undesirables” and “lost causes”. He was constantly being questioned and critiqued for associating and eating with “sinners.” But Jesus came back with responses like, “Those who are well have no need of a physician; it’s the sick that do. I’ve come to call not the righteous, but sinners.”[3] When the self-righteous crowd was prepared to stone a woman to death, Jesus challenged them to let the one who was without sin to throw the first stone. And then, when it was just him and the woman remaining, Jesus told her that just as none of those who had departed could condemn her, neither did he—but she should go and sin no more.[4] It was such a demonstration of honesty, liberation, and love: Jesus acknowledged her sin—there was clearly a rupture in the relationship she had vowed to be faithful to—but he did not define her by her lapse. Nor did he enable or encourage her problematic behavior by dismissing it or pretending that the lapse was “normal” or healthy; he encouraged her to claim her healing, saying, “Go, and sin no more.”

Jesus recognized what the apostle Paul explained in our scripture lesson this morning: that we are all members of the same body. We cannot treat another part of the body poorly or in a way that we’d not choose for ourselves, and hope that it won’t somehow affect us.

I like the way Eugene Peterson’s Bible translation (The Message) renders the last few verses of our Scripture lesson, 1 Corinthians 12:25-26. It says:  “The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.”

Both in Christ and even more broadly, in the universal web of life, we are all connected. When we ignore the suffering of others, or pretend that it has nothing to do with us, it ultimately does us harm. The brokenness of others affects us. And our sin, our brokenness, in whatever ways it manifests, affects others. Conversely, our good choices, our benevolent and compassionate and healing activities serve the whole body, just as we ourselves are strengthened when others act in ways that are mindful of their status as but one member of a bigger body.

Across the week ahead, I challenge all of us to increase our awareness of the issues related to drug and alcohol misuse and overdose. We all need to be thinking and talking about what God is inviting, empowering, equipping us to do as ministers of the Gospel in response to this crisis that touches so many lives we love, and impacts our entire community and culture. At the very least, we can pray for our sisters and brothers who are grappling with the reality of addiction’s grip—on them, or on someone they love. And we can open ourselves to discovering and sharing further practical ways God is calling us to become instruments of healing, hope, and tra

[1] Addiction and Recovery Clergy Intro. Material   https://www.nhepiscopal.org/recovery-issue

[2] 1 Corinthians 12:22

[3] Mark 2:17, NRSV.

[4] John 8:3-11

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