Bare Beginnings

Today we light the pink candle on the Advent wreath.  This is Mary’s Sunday.  And this is Stir Up Sunday – the clue that it was time for folks to get their Christmas puddings started.  Why, you ask?  The collect that begins worship for today begins, “Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us;” Ladies, get your puddings stirred up.  Christmas is coming.

On a more serious note, this Sunday, we also turn our attention to Mary, who sang Magnificat.  In the Ave Maria, the Mother of God.  Highly exalted in song and poetry.  Yet, historically, we know almost nothing about her. 

Unwed, expecting a child.  Poor, of Middle Eastern peasant stock.  Illiterate with no formal education.  Marginal, to say the least.  Of the Creed, the most scandalous assertion concerning Christ was that he was born of a woman – a simple peasant women, pregnant and with no husband.  Of course.  These things are always the woman’s fault.  Out of such simple and lowly beginnings, God turns the world upside down.  Gloria.  Gloria!

That is the scandal of Mary’s child.  To make the point that there was something amiss with this liaison between Mary and Joseph, Matthew in the lineage which introduces his gospel, mentions three other women: Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah” – that is Bathsheba — all women of questionable moral character.  Only four women mentioned in this long litany of male ancestors proceeding forth from Abraham.  Only four, and these four in particular. 

Some scholars believe their insertion in this genealogy was Matthew’s rebuttal to rumors being spread about concerning Mary’s unorthodox pregnancy.  She was an early victim of the Cable News Slime Machine.  And Matthew’s rebuttal was that whatever Mary’s sexual history and whatever her marital status, it makes no difference.  God works through all sorts of women – and men.  These sorts!  Gloria.  Gloria!

God, out of all sorts of questionable people, even some pretty scandalous men and women – you and me, sisters and brothers – Right here.  Standing in the need of prayer – God carries forth the story of salvation.  Yes, Matthew reflected the sexism of his culture.  But, that’s not the point in this story.  Let’s set that aside for another sermon.  The miracle here is that from those accounted as nothing by the movers and shakers, accounted as most lowly, in their very flesh and sad-sack backgrounds, God intrudes into our sorry world – even through people like us here this morning.  Yes, we are also to be accounted as part of the Christmas Miracle.  Gloria.  Gloria!  Can you hear the angels warming up over on yonder mountain?  Do you hear what I hear?

And why Mary?  She said YES.  She yielded herself to God’s story of salvation.  And might we do no less?  Blessed art thou among women, indeed!  “Let it be unto me according to thy word.”  And blessed might we be as well, we of so little account.

While in West Virginia these past weeks, if one was looking for meager material of humble beginnings, Jim, our director of development for House of Hope – Ohio Valley, and I, visited a rehab center run by the clients themselves.  In recovery jargon, it is known as aa peer-to-peer operation.  There were no medical or other professional staff.  The curriculum is solely The Big Book of AA.

As we were shown the facility and spoke with residents there, it was obvious, one could not get to more humble beginnings.  While leaving, a fellow in an orange jump suit and in shackles was being escorted in by a couple of armed deputies.

Behold, this place was, in living color – orange, the Christmas miracle come alive.  Out of degradation and desperation, God was including one more person in God’s great plan of salvation history.  Yes, from Abraham, Joram, Ruth, and a whole bunch of other people we’ve never heard of – right up from Bathsheba, Solomon, to Joseph and beyond – the story continues until it comes to such as you and me.  And a smelly, sorry-ass fellow in an orange jump suit.  Gloria. Gloria!

Recovery Point in Huntington is solely a men’s facility.  It seemed like there were about one hundred living there.  I was astounded at the organization and the ethic of recovery I witnessed in those men.  Two of the biggest learnings accompanying the journey to sobriety are respect and accountability.  All chores are done by those living there from cleaning up and making one’s bed to kitchen duty and mentoring those coming out of detox.  The place ran like clockwork.  Discipline was strict.  Consequences were meted out for screw-ups.  And it was all accepted with equanimity by those who knew in their gut that Recovery Point was their last, best chance.  Now, I sure wouldn’t want any of these men seeing the office and desk I came home to.  They’d know I’d flunked recovery from chaos.

This visit to Recovery Point was my Christmas Present indeed.  As John’s disciples were asked concerning Jesus, what do you see? “Go and tell John what you hear and see:  the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”  And did I ever see the dead raised up!  Right there at Recovery Point, Huntington, West Virginia!  Gloria.  Gloria!  This was far better than any Miracle on 34th Street.  This was the real deal.

We had a most delightful lunch while in Charleston.  Our host cautioned Jim as he was about to get in the back seat, “You’d better sit on the other side.  It’s…umm…a…er…a little full on that side…of…um…er… McDonalds wrappers and cartons.”  It was landfill size full.  We wouldn’t want to rat him out.  But he wears a purple shirt and a collar as part of his professional attire.  We all had a good laugh.

And to top it off, the following day back in Charleston at Starbucks, I spied a young woman in a Recovery Point jacket with a friend.  I introduced myself and they told me that they were staff on the woman’s center here in Charleston.   After they picked up their orders, they came over and set at the table with Jim and me.  Thinking back, mine that morning was probably one of the weirdest, unlikely pickup lines that may have ever worked.  Anyway, they shared some of their stories.  One shared of her seven-year old boy in an institution.  He had been damaged from her neglect when she was stoned.  Recovery’s not easy.  She will live with that reality the rest of her life.  But here she is, picking up the pieces.  Here she is – Stayin’ Alive!  Stayin’ Alive!

The dead are brought back to life and the blind see with new eyes.  She finally has hope for something better.  Christmas Miracle in Charleston, West Virginia!  Gloria.  Gloria! 

To boot, Jim and I have a date to tour their facility on our next trip back in February.  I’m sure that when we staff up House of Hope we will be looking to some of the alumni from Recovery Point.

While we were out in West Virginia, in the midst of all the chaos and vituperation of impeachment that was consuming the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the New York Times ran a most sobering front page article on the losses in Appalachia from addiction.   Above the fold was a montage of photos of the Minford High School Class of 2000 in Scioto County, Ohio — a small town right across the Ohio River just forty miles from where we were staying in Wellsburg.

Virtually no one in this community has been spared.  Everyone knows someone whose life has been touched by opioids.  The headline said it all: “We Could Have Been Anything.”[1] 

Scioto County led Ohio in drug overdoses, drug-related arrests and babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome.

Of the stories featured, here are just a couple of the 110 members of the Class of 2000.  The ones whose pictures were in color were some of the survivors of this epidemic.  Here is the story of Jonathan Whitt.

“I started seeing a lot of pills around 15 years old and I told myself I was never going to do them.  But kids were selling Oxys at school for $3 a pill.  By the time I was 19, I was looking in every medicine cabinet and bathroom.  All my close friends, we all turned into drug addicts.”

Mr. Whitt was on the gold team and became addicted to painkillers when he was 16.  At 28 he switched to intravenous opioid use and then heroin.  He has been jailed at least 10 times and has done multiple stints in rehab.  He has been in recovery for four years.

This is Melissa Kratzenberg’s story.

“I don’t remember a lot of high school because I was messed up on drugs.  By senior year, I realized I had a problem.  I had one good friend in high school who helped me through it.  Once I got cleaned up, other people were getting into it heavy.  I kind of stay away from the area, it’s heartbreaking to even go back.  For me, once you’re truly recovered you have to fight to stay clean.”

Ms. Kratzenberg was in the honor society, marching band and art club.  She started using pain pills as a freshman and stopped after she drank nearly an entire bottle of liquid hydrocodone when she was a senior.  Several relatives have struggled with drugs, one of whom died after 20 years of addiction.

The men and women we met from Northpoint – in their reclaimed lives, God is again preforming the Christmas miracle.  The dead are brought back.  Deserts bloom even in this drug-saturated wilderness.  In the stories of these former members of the Class of 2000 of Minford High who volunteered to go public – so that we in America might understand the full-blown disaster devastating our nation, God is doing a mighty work.  In these stories of recovery, here is our Christmas Story.  Gloria.  Gloria!

Each of these people in recovery began with one single decision — the admission that they had a problem, that their lives had become totally unmanageable.  That, and a decision to get clean.  Like Mary, when offered the hope of a new life, they answered, “Let it be to me, according to thy will.”  This spirit of Mary is most vibrant and astounding in the recovery community people I met this week.

Each and every day these people will join millions around the world in the Serenity Prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” 

One day at a time, the men and women I met will “let go and let God.”  As my friend Fr. Mike says in his invitation to the Recovery Eucharist, “Come, join us.  In this crazy, mixed up and dehumanizing world, we are all recovering from something.”

And Mary answered, “Let it be unto me according to thy word.”   Gloria.  Gloria.   Amen.

[1] Matthew Sedacca, with Susan Beachy and Jack Begg, “We Could Have Been Anything,” New York Times, December 3, 2019.

Preached at St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach, San Bernardino

Isaiah 35:1-10; Canticle 3 (the Magnificat); James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Third Sunday of Advent, December 15, 2019
The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

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