I covered the pulpit yesterday for a friend. This is the sermon I preached using the texts from Isaiah 25:1-9 and Matthew 22:1-14.
I serve Soldier On, a transitional shelter program for homeless veterans, as one of its chaplains. Serving homeless veterans has its rewards and challenges. Moving someone from homelessness to independent living is tremendously rewarding. That’s especially true when many of the veterans we serve became homeless due to an addiction, typically to alcohol or drugs or both, and some may even have mental illness. But that’s also the challenge.
Consider Gary. Gary is a composite of many veterans I serve.
Gary is in his mid-60s. He served two tours in Vietnam evacuating bodies of soldiers killed or wounded in battle. When he came home he got married. He has a couple of children, who are adults now. We can trace his alcoholism to his combat history from which he suffers PTSD and moral injury. Alcoholism destroyed his marriage, which lasted only a few years. His wife left with his children.
Gary also had a harrowing childhood. He was the middle child of three. Their alcoholic father beat them. Their mother couldn’t protect them as she was an alcoholic, too. They got some relief during those occasional months when Dad spent time in jail. Sometimes Mom had to put them in an orphanage. Their life was chaotic. After the family moved for the fifth time, Gary stopped counting them. The moves became too disruptive for the children’s education. Gary never finished high school.
He hasn’t seen his brother in ten years, but he last spoke to him by phone about three years ago. He hasn’t seen or talked to his sister in twelve years. He lost track of his wife. He hasn’t spoken with either of his children in at least twenty years. When asked where they might be, he said, “I don’t know. Texas, I think.”
An alcoholic’s estrangement from family is not uncommon. It’s similar to people addicted to drugs, whether cocaine or opioids or any sort of mind-altering substance. They don’t have to be in their 60s, either. Some years ago I met a woman in her late 40s whose family lived in Alford. They kicked her out due to her drug addiction.
It’s not that an addict is despised or hated by their family. Caring for an addict is exhausting. Your heart breaks when they are heavily drugged or drunk. You stop trusting them because they’ve lied too often to cover up their addiction or they’ve promised to stop only to relapse again and again. You worry financially because you keep giving them money to live after every job they lose or even worse stealing from you to support their habit. You’re tired of running to the emergency room or having to deal with another DWI at all hours of the night.
The woman whose family kicked her out shared some of her story with me. She said they couldn’t keep her home any more. She was out of control and the family feared that she would suck them into her vortex. The emotional roller coaster for them was too much. They stopped taking her back for their own protection. She had to leave. And she had no desire to go back to them, either.
The addict is the odd man out in Jesus’ parable. The family has no problem welcoming people to their table, but the addicted family member no longer fits. Still the family doesn’t necessarily stop loving them. However, the history of hurt and disappointment and betrayal makes their relationship tenuous, brittle, or even non-existent.
Stories like Gary’s or the woman’s are terribly sad, especially to people who have stable and reasonably intact families. When I tell people stories like these, many are almost in disbelief. Losing a family member in such a manner is unimaginable.
So, a question, and an embarrassing one at that. With the opioid epidemic we have in Berkshire County as well around 20% of the county having an excessive alcohol problem, why is it that a sizeable majority of our churches don’t seem to have many families, if any, who have a family member struggling with some sort of addiction?
I’ve served three congregations in Berkshire County in three different denominations. Not once has someone stood up during joys and concerns and said, “I need help with my addiction.” Not once has someone stood up and said, “Our daughter is struggling with addiction and we are at the end of our rope.” Oddly, though, some people have informed their friends in the congregation, such as with the choir, that their son or daughter is struggling with addiction so it is an open secret. They’ve even shared it with me in confidence. But we act like addiction is “out there,” not “in here.”
Is it shame? Vulnerability? Does fear keep addiction in our congregations hidden? Or maybe as a Christian community to admit that an addict is a member of the congregation or that a family struggles with a member who is an addict is a sign of our failure as Christians to live a Christian life?
Let’s be real. If everyone were perfect, we’d have no need for the church. If there is any place where an addict or the addict’s family can be loved, held, and cared for, it is the Church. When we make clear that we will share the struggles and sadness of addiction we destroy the accompanying shroud of secrets and shame. We can work with addiction when we’re honest, open, and willing.
This does not mean that we will end the addiction because few of us have all the skills and knowledge to do that. Ending addiction takes professionals. Even at Soldier On we will place people in addiction treatment programs when an individual’s case is too much for us. Even then, sometimes an addict has to go to more than one treatment program before finally ending their addiction.
Our task as the church is to support the addict and the family. We begin by accepting that addiction is not a sign of weakness or a failing, but a disease. We have to understand the nature of alcoholism and drug addiction, which may entail sponsoring community programs about addiction if only to edify ourselves. We need to acknowledge that addiction is not a function of race or class. Today a substantial percentage of opioid addicts are not poor or people of color, but are middle class and white. They’re addicted because they need the opioid after their prescribed pain medication script ran out. As for veterans, many became addicted because their combat experience upended their moral universe. This is known as moral injury and is not limited to people who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. We need to remind them that they are indeed loved and worthy of compassion and grace through our clear demonstrations which must go beyond words and platitudes. We have to bring ourselves to listen to their stories. Sometimes those stories are really very hard and emotionally draining, but isn’t that what we’re called to do as Christ’s disciples? Furthermore, if people we know and love can’t share their burdens with us, then we should ask ourselves why.
Addiction is a health crisis. It destroys lives. It destroys families. It places a terrible economic burden upon our community, our commonwealth, and our nation. They can be poor health outcomes, the cost of incarceration, the damage it causes within families and neighborhoods, and increased demands for government support programs.
Though we won’t end addiction by ourselves nor can we come close to covering its costs, the church has a role. We can support families struggling with addiction, both the addict and those burdened by the addict. When we do that we are saying, “You don’t have to carry this burden by yourself. We do not believe you have failed, but you have a disease from which we want to see you recover.” We can listen to stories, especially the difficult and painful ones. In so doing, we say, “We truly care, and with the Holy Spirit we have the strength to sit with you in your pain because we love you.” We can begin with ourselves to teach people about addiction so that as a community we can take a proactive role to help people step away from behaviors that might lead to addiction and to provide community resources where once they are addicted, they can get the help they need.
We are the Church, the body of Christ. Our table is long enough and wide enough to provide the rich food and well-aged wines strained clear to all people. Some may come to the table dressed appropriately, others less so. And some hardly at all. But even if we send the addict away, addiction still affects us. Isn’t it much better to keep the addict at the table where we can all share in their care, where they are fed and, most importantly, a have a chance to get well because they are loved?
 Berkshire Health Systems. https://www.berkshirehealthsystems.org/documents/Health%20Needs%20Assessment/Berkshire%20County%20Health%20Needs%20Assement%20REVISED%20Nov%202015.pdf 2015 Page 27