The day before Chris and I left on vacation about 10 days ago, I drove out to Indiantown Gap National Cemetery to bury Olive House, a long-time member of this congregation, and driving out on Route 78 west of Allentown, I found it to be a surprisingly religious stretch of highway. There were billboards, there were messages on the side of barns, there were religious messages on the back of trucks. One of the billboards I found mildly alarming. It said, “You will meet God,” and I thought, I surely hope that’s true, but not today, not on this stretch of highway. There were reminders to pray, to love our enemies, to trust in God’s mercy.
I found myself reflecting for quite a long time, though, on the words that I saw on back of a Walmart truck that was in front of me for a while. It was simple but profound, I thought. It said, “Save money. Live better. walmart.com.” And I thought, live better. Living better is our fundamental purpose as Christians. That’s what it’s all about. But our Christian concept of living better is so very different from the Walmart concept.
The Walmart concept of living better is, we’ve got lower prices so you can have more stuff. You can have some nice deck furniture, or a bigger TV, and that is so much a part of our culture that I think we lose track sometimes of how very contradictory that is to what the Christian concept of living better means.
The Christian idea of living better is all about grace. Grace is the lived experience of God’s love, it’s the thing that makes impossible things possible, it opens the way for us, it strengthens us for the journey. It is our inspiration, and it’s the thing that keeps us going. And grace is so closely linked to the ideas of hope and mercy.
Hope is based on our trust that God is truly bringing a new creation to earth, reconciling everything back to God. And it’s rooted in the Resurrection, which Jesus referred to in today’s Gospel when he talked about dying but rising again on the third day.
That’s the source of our hope, and yet when I think about defining hope or explaining it, one of the very best explanations that comes to mind is the words that Sonny, the hotel clerk said, in the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It’s a delightful movie. If you haven’t seen it, you should, even though it’s getting a little bit old. Things were never going quite right in this hotel, but when people would complain he would say, “Everything will be all right in the end, and if it’s not all right, it’s not yet the end.”
Hope tells us that everything will be all right in the end. Hope and mercy and grace.
So today we observe Recovery Sunday. We pray here every Sunday for people who are struggling with substance use and mental health disorders, and for those who love and care for them. But in a special way we want to highlight hope, mercy, and grace. To say that as much of a problem as addiction is in our society, resources are available. There is hope.
We’re living in a time of crisis. Addictions to alcohol, prescription drugs, and to other drugs are robbing so many people of their freedom and their health and even their lives. My colleagues in congregations that have more young members are burying overdose victims all the time. The statistics tell us that alcohol is the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States, after tobacco—that’s number one—and poor diet and lack of activity—that’s number two. Alcohol directly takes about 88,000 lives annually, plus 31% of all of traffic deaths are believed to be alcohol related.[i]
Meanwhile, 175 or so Americans die every day of drug overdose, and Pennsylvania has the distinction of having the fifth highest rate of deaths due to drug overdose in the country.[ii]And of course, the statistics lag behind on reality. They’re already a couple of years old by the time we get them.
But I probably didn’t even have to tell you that we have a problem, I think, because you hear it in the news, you experience it your neighborhoods. Many times at our Wednesday service, we’ve prayed for children and grandchildren of neighbors and friends who have died of overdose, and some of you know this problem directly in your own families.
And today’s message that there’s hope, that help is available, it’s so important. If you need help or if you need a referral, see me, talk to me, talk to someone you trust, like your doctor. There are some resources on the bulletin boards. Yesterday a number of people in the Diocese of Pennsylvania gathered for Recovery Day to train a number of recovery advocates for the diocese, so resources and help are available.
I don’t want to minimize how hard the work of recovery is, it is definitely hard. It’s not a question of virtue or lack of virtue, it’s a physical disease, it’s a chronic physical disease. There is no cure. It can be lived with, but recovery is a lifelong effort, and only grace can make it possible. But it is possible, so please pray.
Please pray for all of those affected, and please pray for all of us, because in truth, this isn’t just a sermon for people with an addiction problem. This is a sermon for all of us.
We all need grace, hope, and mercy. We all need God’s healing. The writer Richard Rohr, who is a Franciscan, he writes about spirituality. He did a little essay on addiction and recovery and healing, and he said, “We are all attached and addicted in some way.”[iii]
He compared addiction and sin. He said they’re a lot alike, and I think they are. Which is not to say that alcoholic addiction or drug addiction is a sin—don’t mistake what I’m saying—but it’s a similar kind of problem. When you look at the 12 steps of AA[iv]they really could be a rule of life for Christian living. They begin with the admission that we’re powerless, really, to get better by ourselves. And that we can overcome these things, sin and alcoholism, only by relying on a Power that’s greater than us.
When he became Pope back in 2015, Pope Francis proclaimed a year of mercy. Chris and I were in Rome in 2015, and we were able to enter St. Peter’s through a special door, a holy door, which is sealed most of the time, completely sealed. But during these special years, they open it and people line up, pilgrims line up and wait to enter through this special door. The door was opened in the Year of Mercy.
And when he was asked in an interview why he put such an emphasis on mercy, Francis said it’s because we think of ourselves and our sins and our weaknesses as unforgivable and unfixable, because we haven’t allowed ourselves to experience mercy. To experience mercy and forgiveness and healing. He said, “We don’t believe that there is a chance for redemption; for a hand to raise you up; for an embrace to save you, forgive you, pick you up, flood you with infinite, patient, indulgent love; to put you back on your feet. We need mercy.”[v]
We all need mercy, we all rely on grace, we all need to have hope.
One of my favorite writers about spiritual things is a woman named Anne Lamott. She’s very down to earth, she’s very quotable. She’s the one who said, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” [vi]
She also said some really important things about grace. She said—and this is a little more serious—she said, “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are, but does not leave us where it found us.”[vii]
She has a new book coming out next month about hope, and I saw a recent article where she talked about hope. Hope in hard times, hope in these times. Hope as real, insisting that we can trust in hope. We can trust that it will all be better in the end, and if it isn’t better, then it isn’t yet the end.
She also talked about the need for us to be signs of hope to others, by doing good in this world. She said, W”e take the action … and then the insight follows: that by showing up with hope to help others, I’m guaranteed that hope is present. Then my own hope increases.” She said, “By creating hope for others, I end up awash in the stuff. We create goodness in the world, and that gives us hope.”[viii]
I think that’s good advice. I think that we need to hold on to our own hopes for a better life, as the Walmart truck said, and we need to be signs of hope for others. We need to be signs of hope for each other. We need to be about the work of planting hope wherever anyone is leaning toward despair.
And only you can say where that is in your own life. Maybe there’s someone you know who is wrestling with addiction, who you need to reach out to. Or it maybe you are that person who is standing in the need of prayer and grace. My message to you today is, don’t wait. Don’t wait, there is hope. God’s grace, God’s love in action, it’s there for you if only you will reach out for it and receive it.
This isn’t one of the 12 steps, but one of the most famous sayings of AA is, “One day at a time.” What it means in AA is that if thinking about the idea of never having another drink for the rest of your life is just too much, if that’s overwhelming, then don’t think about the rest of your life. Think about getting through this one day. Just concentrate on making it through the next 24 hours.
I came across a message while I was on vacation that expands on that phrase, one step at a time, one day at a time, but it turns it around a little bit and it makes it a call to action.
So Chris and I were stuck in traffic on a two-lane road in Vermont. Seems like time in the car leads to all my best, deepest thinking, but anyway, we were in the car and we had plenty of time to notice a little sign pointing to a bookstore in the basement of a small Episcopal church in Vermont, and we decided that we might as well stop and look at it because we had nothing to lose. We weren’t going anywhere fast anyway.
While we were talking, the bookseller handed me a book by Stephen Charleston, who is a bishop in the Episcopal Church, and also a writer. And I opened the book and it fell open to this page. Charleston wrote:
“Your time starts now. Not tomorrow. Not next week or next month or next year. Not when you are ready. Not when you have enough resources built up, not when you have the plan all arranged, not when you have all the problems solved. It starts now. Because now is the timeless moment of your whole life. Now is the beginning of salvation, of wisdom, of hope, of creativity. God is now. The Spirit is now. You are made of now and to now you will one day return. This is why you were made: to make something out of now, to enjoy now, to live, to live not later, not then, not some day, but to live, fully, completely, freely, now, right now.”[ix]
That’s what God is calling us to. May we all, each and every one of us, live in hope, trusting in God’s mercy and God’s love and grace. Amen.
[i]“Alcohol Facts and Statistics,” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/AlcoholFacts&Stats/AlcoholFacts&Stats.pdf, accessed Sept. 22, 2018.
[ii]“Drug Overdose Death Data,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/statedeaths.html, accessed Sept. 22, 2018.
[iv]“The Twelve Steps.” https://al-anon.org/for-members/the-legacies/the-twelve-steps/, accessed Sept. 22, 2018.
[v]Pope Francis, The Name of God Is Mercy: A Conversation with Andrea Tornielli, 16, quoted by Rohr.
[vi]Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, 22.
[viii]Anne Lamott, “‘Show Up With Hope: Ann e Lamott’s Plan for Facing Adversity.” https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/10/embark-essay-anne-lamott-hope- adversity-conflict-climate-change.html, accessed Sept. 22, 2018.
[ix]Steven Charleston, Arrows of Light, 71.