Summit Presbyterian Church
January 28, 2018
Psalm 111, Mark 1:21-28
“Who’s in Charge?”
Last week the New York Times had an article titled, “1 Son, 4 Overdoses, 6 Hours.” It told the story of one family’s struggle with opioid addiction, focusing on the 34 -year old son who had been abusing drugs since he was fourteen. The son estimated he had overdosed 30 times, each time coming close to death but then escaping it. He would have periods of being clean and vow to stay that way, but then relapse. He had been in and out of jail. The family tried to help. They had interventions and arguments; spent hours on the phone pleading with Medicaid and looking for treatments. They spent their savings. They welcomed him home when he was clean and kicked him out when he was not. They sought therapy and support groups for themselves and their son. Like any story of addiction, it was heartbreaking. And like many stories of addiction, it didn’t quite add up. You could list the reasons for the tragedy. The drugs were physically addictive. He had ADHD and started using when his young brain was still developing. His parents had divorced, he hadn’t done well in school, he had few job prospects. And no doubt he had moral and character failings, like all of us. But those reasons didn’t fully explain the power of his addiction: a power that was (at the time of the article) impervious to all the resolve of the young man, to all the interventions of the health care and criminal justice systems and to all the love of his family. A power that held them in its grip.
A few months ago, the New Yorker had a story about a different family and the opioid crisis: the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma. Purdue is a long-established drug company that has developed many drugs, including valium and librium. In 1996, they released OxyContin. According to the article, there used to be only a small market for opioids, as doctors were leery of narcotics, knowing how addictive they were. They were used for cancer pain, or at the end of life. But in the 1990s researchers were suggesting that such caution was unwarranted, and — with the right formulations — opioids could be used for long-term, chronic pain. Purdue began a very aggressive ad campaign. They trained a sales force in talking points that played a little fast and loose with the facts, equipped them with promotional videos, free samples and lots of swag. Add to this a weak FDA and doctors who were looking for ways to help patients with chronic pain, and you got a recipe for disaster: narcotics being over prescribed, legally and illegally, with thousands of people soon addicted. When the government took measures to limit prescriptions, and as Purdue reformulated their drug to curb abuse, folks turned to heroin. Over 200,000 have died since the turn of the century. Like any addiction story, it’s heartbreaking. And, like many addiction stories, it doesn’t quite add up. We can list the reasons for the catastrophe: Purdue ran a misleading if not deceptive advertising campaign. They resisted government attempts to limit sales, even after the harm was clear. They turned a blind eye to doctors they knew were overprescribing, they squashed evidence they received about abuse of the drug. Of course, Purdue Pharma was not the only player. There were structural problems: a market logic that dictates companies must seek the greatest market share they can. The lure and imperative of high profits. Weak regulations and fears of liability. A tanking economy in rural areas, a culture of widespread drug use. But all those reasons don’t fully explain how it happened. The Sackler family didn’t set out to develop a drug that would ruin lives and kill thousands. The salespeople didn’t think they were pushing bad product: as one person put it, “At the time we thought it was righteous.” Most doctors were well-intentioned practitioners looking for a way to relieve stubborn pain in their patients. Few folks - if any - predicted the swath of destruction that would be unleashed by the sale of this drug. A power that grips much of our country today.
People in the time of Jesus had words for these kinds of powers, the ones that oppressed both families and nations. They were demons. They were unclean Spirits - spirits opposed to God, the opposite of Holy. They were dominions and principalities, cosmic powers of this present darkness; spiritual forces of evil even in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6). For ancient peoples, Jews but especially Greeks, did not see themselves as the center of the world in quite the way we do. Yes, humans were important. According to the Bible, beloved by God, made in God’s image. God, the one God, intervened in human history and told the people how to live. But the real action was between angels and demons, forces of light and forces of darkness, the unclean Spirits and the Holy Ones of God. And these cosmic forces weren’t fighting off in their own room; they were here on earth, recruiting folks, using them, possessing and oppressing them — through illness, by throwing them into fires, through occupying armies such as Roman Legions. So when Jesus strides into the synagogue, and begins teaching with authority, the unclean spirit sits up and takes notice. The Spirit cries out on behalf of the demon world, and names Jesus as the Holy One of God - it was believed that if you named someone you had power over them. But then Jesus commands the unclean spirits and they obey him. Jesus is the one with the power; Jesus is the one with authority; Jesus liberates the man from the demon. And in all his teaching, healing, and finally in his death and resurrection, Jesus shows his power over the powers, the powers opposed to God and to human well-being.
Generally speaking, we 21st century smartphone users hesitate to to use the language of demons and devils and cosmic powers. We don’t believe demons hide in kitchen pots, ready to jump out and cause trouble, as the Greeks did. We’re more reality based. We talk about poor choices, illness, ethics and sin — human sin. And of course all those things are real. But some Christians are bolder. They talk about spiritual warfare, about Satan and demons that plague them — from inner voices wishing them harm to forces in society they feel are gaining the upper hand. But it’s not just the charismatic wing of Christianity that talks about the powers. Since World War II, liberal theologians in stuffy Presbyterian seminaries have also returned to the language of powers and principalities. They’re more likely to point to the demonic powers that take ahold of our institutions and the structures of our society (as well as individuals). Racism. Militarism. But it’s not an either/or, personal or political. And ultimately it doesn’t matter what we call them: those forces are real, evil and powerful.
But not as powerful as Jesus. Not as powerful as the Risen Christ. It’s true they have not been totally vanquished. Yet. We’re still in the struggle. But in the many battles that have been won, we see the power of Jesus. We see it in lives that have been transformed and healed, including our own. To continue with today’s sermon illustration, we see it when people enter recovery, and stay there against all odds. We see it in the miracle drugs of the last hundred years: drugs the cure diseases and relieve pain and restore minds; drugs that strengthen and protect. We see it in movements for justice and liberation and in the progress that has been made. We’re still waiting for the full redemption of creation, including the redemption of those powers, but we, too, can see that Jesus commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.
Last week you may remember the sermon slogan was “Resistance is Futile;” resistance to God, that is, whose yes is greater than our no. This week’s takeaway is that because resistance to God is futile, resistance against evil is not. For just as demonic powers can use us, so can Christ. This week’s sermon slogan is “resistance is mandatory.” Indeed, the first question we ask when we receive new members is: “Do you promise to renounce evil and it’s power in the world?” So we renounce and resist. First, through prayer — lots of it. We resist through self-examination and repentance, as we must be on guard against the evil one using us. We resist through acts of mercy and love, through building people up rather than tearing them down. We resist through peaceful public witness, even in the streets. And we resist by proclaiming the Good News. The Good news that Christ is more powerful than the unclean spirits, whose days are numbered. As we sing in our Easter hymn*, Christ is Risen! Shout Hosanna! Earth and heaven never more shall be the same. Break the bread of new creation where the world is still in pain. Tell its grim, demonic chorus: Christ is risen! Get you gone! God the First and Last is with us. Sing Hosanna, everyone
The New Yorker, October 30, 2017 Issue
The Family That Built an Empire of Pain, By Patrick Radden Keefe
The New York Times, 1 Son, 4 Overdoses, 6 Hours, Katharine Q. Seeleye, January 21, 2018.
The Word Before the Powers: An Ethic of Preaching, Charles L. Campbell, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY.
*by Thomas Troeger