My Neighbour Wants to Know How to Respond to the Opioid Crisis
7/29/2019 5:14:23 AM
Matthew 11:28-30; 1 Thessalonians 5:14
July 28, 2019
Rev. David Williams
What do you think of drug addicts? What do you think or feel when you hear about drug addicts over-dosing? What do you think or feel when you hear about a drug addict dying from an overdose?
Today in our series, “My neighbour wants to know,” we are going to talk about responding to the opioid crisis. To be honest, this sermon has both challenged me and convicted me. The first question I had to address was, “Is the opioid crisis really a crisis?” Well, yes it is. Let me give you some perspective on it.
I had heard that there were a lot of deaths related to opioid drugs- which are synthetic versions of opium products. I knew that these were prescription medical drugs used for pain. I had heard of fentanyl and knew it was somehow related to people dying. What I didn’t realize was that in the US last year there were more deaths due to opioids than gun violence! There were more deaths due to opioids than car crashes!
In Canada last year, 2018, there were 4, 460 deaths- which works out to 1 every 2 hours of every day of the year! In 3 years there have been 11,500 deaths. [https://health-infobase.canada.ca/datalab/national-surveillance-opioid-mortality.html#AORD]
So why is this happening? What’s going on? Well, there are a number of contributing factors, and I won’t pretend to understand it all, but here’s a thumbnail sketch. Fentanyl is made in a lab and really cheap. It’s also highly potent. Drug dealers are mixing it with more expensive opium products, like heroine, to increase the “kick” of the drugs cheaply. But it’s difficult to control how powerful the fentanyl is and different people react differently. So when people take the “boosted” drugs, they overdose and die! In fact, it’s possible for drugs to be prepared without fentanyl, but if they’re prepared on a table that had been used for fentanyl previously and even just a few grains of the stuff, similar to a few grains of salt, get into the “clean” drugs, it can kill someone! And this is happening at an alarming rate! I didn’t realize so many people were using opioid products- which highlights how big the drug problem is in North America!
This is where I have been convicted. My first response on hearing about the opioid crisis over the past few years had been, “Well, use drugs and bad things happen!” But this week I’ve been convicted that each of these people are a human being created in Christ’s image and if we’re serious about agape love, this means I need to be deeply concerned with their well-being! Yes, using drugs is foolish and illegal. But that doesn’t change the fact that we need to treat people who struggle with drug use with compassion and care. It should break our hearts that people are dying, regardless of how they die!
Furthermore, we have a number of people in our congregation who are in recovery from drug use, or have family members in recovery. It’s sobering to think that any one of them could have died from coming into contact with fentanyl or a similar opioid accidentally!
My initially callous response to the opioid crisis disappoints me. I’m disappointed in myself for having such a hard-hearted response to this issue. The other night Amy and I were watching a show on Netflix and one of the characters had a tortured childhood with an angry father. Now as an adult he has serious substance abuse issues. He’s a train wreck of a man in his 40’s. In one scene, high and drunk, he joins a group of strangers sitting around smoking drugs at night outside. He’s an outcast, alienated from his family, homeless, jobless, hanging around with other people in a similar boat all indulging their addictions together trying to numb the pains of life.
It got me thinking, has drug addiction become the “leprosy” of our day? What do I mean by that? In Jesus’ day, and all of the OT, leprosy was a family of diseases that caused a person to become an outcast. They had to leave their home and live in isolation, outside of town. Their only companions were other lepers. No “good” people would come near them. Sometimes their families might leave them food, but when lepers came near people they had to ring a bell and shout, “Unclean! Unclean” so people could get out of their way. Religious people in particular prided themselves on avoiding lepers, some even going to far as to brag about throwing stones at lepers! And, sadly, many people believed that lepers had, somehow, brought this upon themselves through sin!
What do we do about the opioid crisis? I’m not a policy expert and I try not to get political in my sermons. I’m not going to be waxing eloquently about what the government should do at any level. I don’t know that our congregation is in a position to do anything formal or to start a program about it. Rather- how do we as Christians respond to the fact that thousands upon thousands of people are dying each year because of drug use?
Like most of the messages in this series, the Bible doesn’t directly address the question we’re talking about today. Rather, the Bible speaks to principles from which we can derive a Christian response to the question. Jesus doesn’t speak to drug use specifically, or even addiction. But let’s consider what he says to broken people. Similarly, Paul doesn’t speak to drug use, but let us see what he says about responding to people who are not living the way they should!
Let’s turn together to Matthew 11:28-30 and then 1 Thessalonians 5:14.
What It Says
Our passage in Matthew is a famous one, these are valuable and cherished words of Jesus. This passage opens with an invitation, “Come to me.” There is an invitation of approach. Notice, significantly, that Jesus says the weary should come to him for rest! Contextually, only God can give rest! Jesus’ invitation is also a challenge to accept that he is God!
He says, “Take my yoke upon you.” A yoke is a tool used to attach a pair of animals to a plow or wagon so they can pull it together. Jesus offers equipment for life’s burdens, not escape from life’s burdens. To the weary and heavy laden, Jesus offers a new way to carry life. The yoke is a work instrument, not a mattress for a nap! He offers not only refreshment (life-giving rest), but also equipment for carrying life’s burdens. In fact, the most restful gift he can offer is a new way to live life in close relationship with God!
A yoke was not just a farm implement, though. The term “yoke” also referred to a rabbi’s specific interpretations of the Law. The set of doctrines specific to a rabbi were referred to as that rabbi’s “yoke.” Jesus says that his interpretation and application of God’s law is easy and light to carry. Now, it may not be easy to live up to! Think of the Sermon on the Mount- very difficult commands to live! But, compared to the legalistic, burdensome, perfectionistic interpretations of Pharisees in Jesus’ day, his interpretation is incredible! And, if you push further, the purpose of the Law is to put us in a right relationship with God. What is Jesus’ teaching on how to be right with God? Jesus takes our sin upon himself on the cross and offers us a relationship with God as grace, accessed through faith! We cannot carry out God’s Law, so Jesus did it for us!
In Jesus we find rest, new life and a new way of life with God. He brings rest to the weary, rest to our souls, and a new avenue to righteousness- to being in a right relationship with God! But to do that, we must take Jesus’ yoke upon ourselves. Jesus doesn’t offer us freedom to do what we want. He offers us freedom from sin and its consequences. He doesn’t offer us escape, but rather radically different equipment. He doesn’t offer autonomy, which is self-direction, but he offers us a new commander, a new master with a new law!
A yoke is for walking, not sitting. We are to walk with Jesus, to live obedient to him. It’s not about making a decision one time, saying one prayer. It’s about continually walking in step with Jesus, following his lead. Jesus’ invitation is free and open to all, “Come to me all…” But his invitation, while free to all, comes with consequences. We must take his yoke upon us, we must daily take up our cross and follow him. It is not a free call to freedom of self, but a free call to freedom in Christ. This second half, the need to take his yoke upon us, is why so many people do not run to Jesus! But when we do, when we take that yoke, we find new life, deep rest and restoration and a way to live life to the fullest. Now, consider our second text….
Paul’s words are how the church, as Christ’s body and ambassadors, can live out Jesus’ invitation to the weary. Jesus’ words to the weary, his offer of a light yoke, must also be mirrored in the church. If Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light, but the church only offers a heavy burden and difficult yoke, then we are not being the community of Christ! We are not being “little Christs” which is what “Christian” means!
Let’s take a closer look. Paul is writing to all Christians in his final instructions to the Thessalonians. The idle, the timid and the weak all appear to not be following through on their responsibilities. On the outside, they all look similar. The idle are those who shirk their work. This is the military term for those who can’t keep in rank. They’re out of line!
The timid are those who lack courage naturally, or who have become discouraged. They are faint of heart, worried or despondent. In Paul’s immediate context, we can think of those discouraged by persecution or even the death of loved ones before Christ’s return.
The weak are those who are weak spiritually in the face of temptation or hardship. In all 3 cases, believers are not following through on their responsibilities to live for Jesus. But in all 3 cases the reason for not following through is different. The idle are not weak or timid. The weak are not being idle. The timid are afraid, not weak! So look at what Paul says to do in each case. He says to warn the idle, encourage the timid and help the weak!
Paul’s instructions match the different needs of people who are not living correctly. He doesn’t say “help the idle.” That would be enabling. If they’re just shirking their work and we come along and do the work for them, we’re enabling their laziness! He doesn’t say “warn the timid.” The timid are already afraid! They don’t need a warning, they need encouragement. They have the strength to do it, but not the courage.
He doesn’t say warn the weak either. Nor are we to encourage the weak. We are to help them! Encouraging the weak is actually infuriating! “There you go! You’re can do it! Just trust in Jesus!” are not helpful words to someone who is literally too weak to carry through.
They need help not encouragement! They don’t have the strength to do it on their own! They may have the courage and the desire, but not the strength.
Warn the lazy, encourage the timid, help the weak. But how do we know which is which? How do we keep track? How do I know if you’re lazy, or just intimidated? How do I know if you’re lazy or just weak? How can we tell the difference? Because the remedy is different! We have to get to know one another!
Knowing a person’s needs only comes through relationship. It is only when we are in relationship with one another that we can discern if a person is idle or timid, if they are timid or weak, etc. The only way we know what kind of help to offer a person who is struggling is to be in relationship with them! We may judge from the outside, thinking we can read their hearts through their actions, but that is wrong. Think back to EHR- “stop mind reading and clarify expectations!” When we take it upon ourselves to just warn everyone, or encourage everyone, or help everyone, without first determining if they are idle, timid or weak, we are more likely to do harm than good!
Once we know a person’s need, we are to apply the right remedy. It is in the context of relationship that we can offer real, tangible help. It is in the context of relationship, loving relationship, that we are effective tools of Jesus to bring rest to the weary, to bring a light yoke and an easy burden to people for whom life has gotten hard and the burdens of sin too much! This is how we are used by the Spirit to bring new life to those for whom religion has become a grind and for whom being good has become laborious. And as we do it, we are to be patient with everyone, including or even especially when repeated help seems of little use or is unwelcome!
How, then, do we apply these texts? If Jesus says his burden is easy and his yoke is light, then churches should be filled with people for whom the burdens of life are too much and they have come to Jesus for relief. And the church community should be a place in which people are finding abundant life, and help with their burdens. That’s what Paul says in Galatians 6- we are to bear with one another those burdens that are more for any one person to carry, even while we still take responsibility for our own issues that we can reasonably deal with.
Church should be a community where we find rest and help with our burdens. Jesus’ invitation to the weak and weary is the invitation of the church too! It is through the community of Christians that people come to Jesus. So his invitation should be our invitation too.
Too often we indulge the idle, shame the timid and dismiss the weak. We are not patient. We don’t take the time to enter into relationship to understand why people are not living up to their Christian commitment. We do not respond with love to the weary and heavy laden. We do not offer a light burden and an easy yoke.
But we are all burdened! We are all broken in sin. We are all in need of rest for our souls! We all need encouragement to hold onto our hope. We all need help in our weakness to battle sin and temptation.
Our calling is to be a community of healing, rest and support. We are to be a community that reflect Jesus’ character, including his invitation to the weary, not only to provide rest, but also to provide new equipment for the work of living life with all its burdens and cares.
Answering the Question
So now we have a foundation for answering the question about how to respond to the opioid crisis! Jesus’ invitation to the weary and heavy laden is an invitation that extends to those who battle drug addiction too. In fact, they fit exactly into his invitation! Why? Because their drug addiction did not happen in a vacuum. Their addiction is a yoke they’ve taken upon themselves in an attempt to deal with life’s burdens and weariness.
All addictive behaviour is an attempt to cope with difficult, unprocessed emotions. It is in our brokenness that we turn to addiction. And I don’t just mean substance abuse, although that is sometimes the easiest place to draw straight lines of connection. But any addiction- drinking, gambling, sexual addiction, pornography, adrenaline junkies, shopping addictions are all attempts to cope with life’s difficult, unprocessed emotions. Have you ever heard somebody talk about “doing a little retail therapy”? The thrill of a purchase, the thrill of adrenaline, the thrill of sexual desire, the thrill of winning can all be as powerful, and release chemicals in our brain as powerful as any drug.
Opioids are a tool for dealing with pain, either physical or emotional. People who are dying from opioid overdoses are using the drugs to dull the pain, to deal with difficult unprocessed feelings- physical and/or emotional. Our job as Christians is not to condemn them for the attempt to deal with their pain inappropriately. Our job as Christians is to offer hope to the hopeless, meaning to the purposeless, worth to those who feel worthless, rest to the restless and healing to the broken all through the power of the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus.
Our response is to offer an invitation of love to the weary and burdened to find the yoke of Jesus. Our response to the Opioid crisis should be like the early church’s response to the problem of leprosy. It was early Christians who chose to see lepers as people created in the image of God and therefore worthy of love and respect. It was Christians to created leper colonies to care for the sick outcasts who had lost everything and had no hope of healing outside of God’s divine intervention. It was Christians who chose to invest in the lives of victims, not caring if they “got what they deserved” because as Christians we know WE are not getting what we deserve!
So as Christians in the 21st Century, not the 1st, we can offer love to those who are addicted to drugs. We can offer respect and dignity to those who have lost everything. We can offer hope to those who have no hope outside of the divine intervention of God. Did you know that the Christ-based recovery program, Teen Challenge, has the best long term recovery rate of any drug recovery program precisely because their core treatment is addressing the underling hurts of addicts by introducing them to Jesus? This is agape love- to be primarily concerned with the well-being of others, regardless of what the other has done, what they struggle with or how they have chosen, thus far, to deal with it. Amen.
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