This past week I followed with some interest the news stories from the Vancouver informing us about the rampant abuse of the drug, Fentanyl. We have all heard about the concentration of abuse that takes place on the Vancouver Eastside where there are safe injection sites, but this news story took place in suburban Surrey and similar drug use is raging across the country. A notorious 'strip' (along a 6' high fence) there, is inhabited by many people addicted to drugs. The RCMP street patrol finds every few metres, a person with addictions huddled under plastic sheets or tattered sleeping bags.
Amid the filth and squalor are scores of spent needle caps and syringes, evidence of rampant drug use. Police check to see who may have overdosed and who may have died overnight. Drug gangs are sneaking the cheap and powerful synthetic opioid into street drugs such as heroin and cocaine, because of its powerful kick and low cost. This drug is so powerful that a couple of grains, equivalent to a grain of salt can give a high and two grains can be lethal. A police officer that handles that medication puts themselves in danger if they are not clothed appropriately.
"Most of the addicts that I see who have fentanyl in their urine think they are using heroin or some other drug; they don't know they are using fentanyl," said Dr. Evan Wood, an addiction specialist at St. Paul's Hospital. "That's what makes it so dangerous."
There is an antidote to the overdose of fentanyl if it is administered soon enough. This week the newscast showed individual paramedics administering this drug dozens of times in a work shift, each time saving a life. One person shared with a broken heart that he has given the same 24 year old woman, a dose of the antidote on two different occasions in 10 days. What desperation is out there!
In our text today, the prophet Jeremiah makes a desperate lament about the state of his people. "The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.
For those of us familiar with the folk tradition of Christian spirituals, "there is a balm in Gilead" likely conjures up warm feelings of comfort and hope. There is a balm in Gilead, we remember, to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead that heals the sin-sick soul.
We're surprised then, to turn to Jeremiah where the situation of the people is such that there is no balm in Gilead. There is no medicine to ease the pain. There is no doctor to heal the people.
What there is for the people, is devastation. The prophet lived in the turbulent and dark last days of the independent kingdom of Judah, a society on the brink of devastation. This was war time. The Assyrians had largely dismantled the northern kingdom of Israel, while Judah was under threat from the growing empire of Babylon from the east. Jeremiah lived through the repeated 'sacking' of the beloved city of Jerusalem and was put in to exile with his people.
Now In Jeremiah's view of the world and view of God, Judah deserved what they got, because they were unfaithful to God. Jeremiah interpreted Judah's destruction as divine judgment. The prevailing spirit of the people was fear, despair, and perceived abandonment by God. The prophet cries out, "Isn't there a doctor in the house?" And for those who asked, the answer seemed to be, not for you, not for your people.
Sometimes we feel trapped-trapped in personal situations of grief, of times when nothing seems to be going right. A series of obstacles come our way in a short time and we wonder, "why me?" Or it seems like the atmosphere has been poisoned and there is no solution in sight. This could be the reality on the stage of a nation such as that being addressed by Dr. Wood in Vancouver or in neighbourhoods where poverty and violence abound and there is no apparent solution.
The picture painted by the prophet-poisonous snakes, people drowning in grief, the absence of God, poor harvest, heart-broken, weeping people is bleak and startling, but it is not the last word, even for Jeremiah. The prophet and God are still with those who suffer, "I wish my head were a well of water and my eyes fountains of tears so I could weep day and night for casualties among my dear, dear people." God's love is as one who loves their child. God is vulnerable as we parents are vulnerable, so that when a child is hurting, we also hurt with the same intensity or maybe even more so. The people had every right to believe that because God was known to be present in devastated Jerusalem that they would be safe. God appears unable to get the people to change through the words of the prophet and therefore God hurts so much that God's own heart is wounded.
The spiritual, "there is a balm in Gilead" originated in a community which had experienced a very different, though no less horrific, exile---that of the American slave trade. There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole; there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul. These words were sung by those who, like Jeremiah, longed for that balm and did not find it present. When we sing the hymn today, it is the legacy of their subversive and prophetic hope that even in the deepest darkness, God is there holding us in our pain.
Jeremiah's view of God reveals a depth to the character of God in the Old Testament that goes far beyond anger and judgment. Here we see a picture of God that is very close to what we see of the same God revealed in Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus sat on the hillside outside Jerusalem just a few days before the people of that city would kill him and wept over the city, here God weeps with the prophet at the failure of his people.
There is no hope for Jeremiah's generation, but the love of God is so intense that despite suffering and destruction, there will be a future. The grief of the people and of God calls us anew to trust a God who cares this much. Death will not be the end.
Earlier in the month of September our university campuses were open for business once again as students left the shelter of their parent's homes to descend to campus residences and student ghettos for a time of study. Things begin for the freshmen in activities known as "frosh week." These are activities to orient the students to campus life and their new freedom. Unfortunately, alcohol if often mixed in with activities of new found freedom. Just last week in Toronto there was drinking and argument and a knife drawn over some comments about religion. One person ended up dead.
We might find Jeremiah's words an appropriate reaction, "They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one."
Though it did not receive any national news coverage there was an alternative celebration of "frosh week" going on close to some university campuses. Instead of a pub crawl, where students stumble from one pub to another in nightly celebration, a different program was offered in Ottawa. Twenty-one churches of various denominations took part in a scavenger-hunt style event. Seventy students took part in the "church crawl" where teams worked to answer trivia questions about each location they visited. Here was an alternative offered to get students plugged into a faith community or at least get them thinking about faith in those first weeks away from home. Some churches put in special efforts to attract students and deliver a worship style and a worship time that spoke to them.
We are called to as a church, suffer with and hope for those caught in the turmoil of the world. We live in a world that in many ways is not far different from Jeremiah's. We see our message of hope largely ignored in our world. People reject God, not wanting or expecting to face any consequence. Indifference and non-involvement are the order of the day. Instead, we are constantly bombarded with messages of modern prophets of success and prosperity who have built their own idols and call others to give their lives to these false gods. Too often, even God's people seem too concerned with their own spiritual pulse-taking, too concerned with their own success, prosperity, happiness and comfort to really hear the voices of broken humanity, or to hear the voice of a lone prophet crying, to "Return" to your God.
I want to tell you about a few things that you enabled last week. There is a doctor in the house and the doctor is providing all kinds of healing procedures. Over this last week there were a number of toddlers coming to the Montessori school for the first time. Those children and their parents were given compassion despite the separation anxiety expressed. The daily staff here project an attitude and a welcome that reflects well on our church community.
One morning this week I found Ken Beck and Carol Pley out harvesting the community garden. Carol was cutting kale and preparing it to be delivered to the Exchange in Bolton. I learned this week that the Exchange is a social destination for everyone! There, residents of Caledon can participate in general interest courses ranging from yoga to preserving basics to meal preparation. At the Exchange, social support comes in the form of extended programs addressing life's challenges such as finding a job or affordable housing or simply sharing a cup of coffee and your story.
This past week the women of the UCW group met to connect and review their recent work. I found out that they had recently donated funds to the Massey Centre and to Camp Sempresca.
The Mission of Camp Simpresca is, "to provide a safe and healthy camping experience promoting friendship, fun, camping skills and self-awareness, while all members of this Christian community challenge themselves physically, intellectually, spiritually and socially."
In the end, the prophet Jeremiah died with his people. Jeremiah's faithfulness, his weeping, provided hope for the future. Later the people looked back and understood that the one who wept was the true servant of God, because that servant understood the hurt in the heart of his people. Let us pray for the capacity to weep at the brokenness of our world and be empowered to respond.