A couple of months ago I attended a training in Roxbury and in the first small group session, we were invited to identify a situation in the world breaks our hearts. People mentioned racism, education inequality, loneliness. We were then prompted recall the name of someone we knew who was deeply affected by this issue and to write it on a small candle before us. As we shared our stories around the circle and lit the candles one by one, I found my grief sharpen and refocus. My sorrow was no longer about giant, fearsome, anonymous problems to be analyzed and solved, but people’s very real lives. In that moment, surrounded by flickering candles and unspoken prayers, my overwhelming despair crystallized into a new sense of urgency, an urgency of determined hope.
In many stories in the Gospels, diseased and ostracized people whom Jesus reaches out to heal remain unnamed. In today’s healing story, however, the blind beggar has a name. In fact, Bartimaeus’s name carries such significance that Mark translates its meaning, son of Timaeus, for his readers. At the beginning of the story, Bartimaeus sits on the side of road Jesus and his followers are taking out of Jericho. Hearing that it is Jesus of Nazareth passing by, the blind man cries out to him. But the crowd around him, Jesus’s own followers, sternly order him to be quiet. And yet here the son of Timaeus cries out again, even more loudly, using the name for Jesus that mirrors his own, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Hearing him, Jesus stops in his tracks. Instead of calling Bartimaeus to him, however, Jesus tells the crowd around him to call the beggar forward. In this way, Jesus asks the very community who had been hushing Bartimaeus to participate in the blind beggar’s healing. And they do, telling Bartimaeus, “Take heart, get up, he is calling to you.”
This past Wednesday, we hosted a public screening of the documentary film called The Anonymous People here in the sanctuary. The film gets its name from the tradition of anonymity in communities of people recovering from addiction to drugs and alcohol. It’s a tradition that has allowed millions of people to take that first terrifying step to attend a meeting full of strangers, and helped so many of them take the next twelve steps toward wholeness in their lives. But the film also points out this anonymity can be misused in a way that perpetuates the terrible stigma people in addiction and recovery face. The film poignantly compares the nascent recovery movement to the successful AIDS movement in the early 1980s. The gay community understood that the silence and stigma that surrounded the virus was directly killing thousands of their young people. So they rose up and cried out and when they were sternly ordered to be quiet, when they were told AIDS victims deserved their disease because they had had dirty and immoral sex, they cried out all the louder, demanding funding, healthcare, and a cure. Over the course of a now three decade-long fight, billions of dollars have been raised and millions of people have been treated and saved because activists cried out and keep crying out. They stitched the names of their victims onto a humongous quilt and laid it before the nation’s capital, and people like Magic Johnson came forward to name themselves, again and again.
Those living in recovery from alcohol and addiction in the US today face a similar stigma as the AIDS community in the 1980s. Too many people believe and too many federal, state, and local policies support the notion that addiction is rooted in sinfulness and a lack of self-control. The 23.5 million people in recovery in the US today who have overcome their disease should be celebrated and supported. But because the intense stigma they face and the resulting tradition of anonymity in recovery groups, many choose to keep stories a secret from those outside the recovery community. No one knows their names.
Beverly Haberle, a person in recovery interviewed by the documentary, shared her name and her own story in order to illustrate the devastating consequences of anonymity. “I'm a breast cancer survivor,” she says, “and when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I got off the floor of my oncologist and there was a big sign that says "How can we help you with your recovery?"…they offered all kinds of support and at one point I said to the doctor, "How much is this going to cost?" And he said, "Nothing, it's all part of your treatment. We want you to have the best chance of recovery you possibly can have." Imagine a world where we said that to every person who completed drug treatment programs. Where we wrote the names of survivors and victims and fighters on luminary bags around the high school track the way we do for the cancer research fundraiser, Relay for Life. Imagine if we got together as a community and asked ourselves, what can we do to make our community more supportive to those in recovery? Imagine if we heard Jesus’s invitation to say to one another, “Take heart, get up, he is calling you?”
This past Wednesday, the Massachusetts Department of Health released new statistics for opioid overdose deaths in the Commonwealth from 2012-2014. At 31 deaths, the city of Medford ranks among the top 25 communities in the state with the most opioid fatalities. Horrifying numbers like that can work to inspire a deep sense of urgency in our community, but for me it is often a sense of urgency tinged with despair and resignation. It is names, the names of the brave individuals who have cried out and struggled and overcame their addictions, that inspire an urgency of hope within me. Names like Iraq War Veteran Brian Tivnan, or Spoken Word Poet Matt Ganem, who have been standing up and speaking out in Medford about their journeys from addiction to sobriety. Names like Alysia, Keith, and Damon, who courageously came to the screening to represent the work of Medford Overcoming Addiction this past Wednesday. And you and I, we know more names, too. With 23.5 million people in recovery in the US today, and with many more striving to join them, we all know someone whose life has been touched by alcoholism or addiction. What are the names that inspire that urgency of hope within you? I invite you now in the silence that follows to hold one of their names in your heart with me now.
In Jesus’s name we pray,