Year B, Proper 15 August 16, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery.”
In all fairness, today’s passage from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus isn’t really about drunkenness and debauchery, well it is not primarily a call to abstinence or tee-totaling. The few verses prior to this were condemning of fornicators, but that might be less condemnation then creating an identity. ‘Those pagans do those things, we don’t,” kind of like the dietary restrictions given in the Law of Moses. Prohibitions on eating pork arose largely as a way of making the newly formed confederation of tribes into a discernible nation, not eating pork helped to make them a “we” as opposed to those terrible pork-eating Canaanites. So not fornicating, not participating in debauchery of any form was a way that Paul hoped to make Christians a discernible “we” carved, as it would be, out of the epic debauchery of the Roman empire.
St. Paul does speak against such things, in several places, but where he is specifically condemning drunkenness and fornication, it wasn’t on some pietistic “you’re going to burn in hell for your moral failures” way, but rather he was concerned with intoxication, with distraction, intoxication and distraction by earthly things which can prevent us from experiencing or encountering God. It is about distractions. If we are full of spirits then we can’t possibly be full of The Spirit.
We don’t talk about Demon Rum, about drunkenness very often, not in Episcopal churches. Back in December there was the terrible news of an Episcopal bishop driving drunk and killing bicyclist Tom Pallermo, a 41 year old father of two. That has spurred some conversation, but for the size of this issue, for the impact that alcohol, that intoxication, that addiction of all sorts has on all of us, each day, in very material and very spiritual ways, we rarely even mention the problem.
I know a lot of your stories. About your families, where you are from and where you are. I know a lot of the stories of the rich and the poor among us, those doing well, those who seem to be doing well and those who can’t conceal the struggles you face. And be assured, that the addiction, the substance use and abuse that impacted or impacts you, your life, your family, that your experience of that is so incredibly common. We all have our own unique story to be sure, but the vast, vast majority of us have addicts of one form or another in our lives, or are addicts ourselves, so don’t feel singled out and maybe more importantly don’t feel alone for you are not! Between mental illness and addiction, none of us are unscathed.
And it is no wonder, intoxicants are ubiquitous. I’m a fan of local everything, and in the world of intoxicants, we are a leader, Eugene is. We are in a world-class grape growing region. A whole section of the city has been dubbed a “fermentation zone” and is inhabited by I don’t even know how many breweries, cider mills and even a meadery, including the fastest growing small brewer in the nation. And the times are a changin’ as our public utility, EWEB, sells a large downtown property to investors who plan to open a major cannabis operation. Buy locally grown, right?
That is all good for business, it is part of our regional identity, which is great, and the impacts are real and can be crushing. I work with a lot of very poor people, people so poor that they can’t afford a place to live, and oh, how many stories of descent begin with that first beer stolen at age 10, or the first joint at 11. I don’t know a story on the street that substances, that potentially addictive things don’t factor into somehow. I know someone who ten years ago was sitting in a pew just like these, just like us. College degree. Successful, professional, a professional creative even, and I met him, ten years later, stumbling drunk and living at Whoville. It is everywhere.
I stopped drinking myself last year, about 18 months ago. I am not an alcoholic, I am pretty sure about that. If I were, I’d like to think I would tell you all. There is no shame in addiction, and it would be something you should know about your priest, but you know, I saw some writing on the wall, I saw some possible futures playing out before me and I got scared. One of my closest friends was killed in a car accident, drunk, with a trunk full of empty vodka bottles. Everyone had fun when Russ was around. I sure did. But at some point, it stopped being fun for him and things got out of control, and it killed him. And someone I know who is in recovery told me their story and same thing, having fun and then it wasn’t fun as things got out of control. I thank God frequently that things did not get out of control for me, and that I have been able to clear some of the highly combustibles from around the foundation of my life. For me, drinking was playing with fire.
What is it? What is it about intoxicants? Why is there so much energy and excitement and allure and danger all mixed together? Paul was concerned about it for a reason… what is it? And it is not just alcohol, that is just the most common and socially acceptable intoxicant. There are drugs designed/discovered that pique every sensation, there is the thrill of gambling, the base of the spine pull of sex or the vacant hunger for attention and affection, and so many others… all the fruits of ecstasy once ascribed to Bacchus or Dionysus, why are they so enticing? Well, energy, excitement, allure and danger all mixed together, for some of us, is the definition of fun. Or at least is the antithesis of the suffering you live, be it simple doldrums, the monotony of daily existence, or something to turn down the volume, tame the swirl of life, or keep away the pain of facing reality, how broken you are, or your mom is, or anything that keeps me from thinking about that, or dealing with what you need, really need to deal with right now but for the love of everything you don’t want to, you can’t deal with, not today. Does any of this sound familiar?
It is truly amazing what a beer or a glass of wine does to you when you are stressed out. Make it three or four and there is nothing to worry about. Now of course, there is still everything to worry about, and more so, as you use the same coping mechanism each day until all of the problems that you are avoiding are dwarfed by the drinking problem you have cultivated. Intoxicants are devilishly cunning. Richard Rohr wrote an excellent book, Breathing Underwater, on the spirituality of the 12 steps. In it he puts forth the idea of addiction as original sin. Devilish indeed. I am convinced that smoking is so satisfying because what you do is create an incredibly pressing need, the chest tightening craving that is nicotine, you create that need and then you have an instant and completely reliable relief valve. Create a problem that you have a solution for. It feels good to solve problems. It is incredibly satisfying. Until it happens again. And then again, an hour later. And again twenty, thirty times a day. It is satisfying, so satisfying and then you can’t stop.
This is what St. Paul was concerned about, what we need to be concerned about. Where do we meet God? Or, when do we meet God? This is a test, I speak about this fairly regularly particularly around contemplative prayer, centering prayer. We meet God… here and now. We encounter God in this very moment, in this very place and only in this very moment and this very place. The past is memory (remember), nostalgia, it is not real anymore. The future is speculation, fantasy, God alone knows what (and if anything) is to come. All that is real is right now. We encounter God in the sacrament of the present moment and all of these addictives, be it alcohol, drugs, disordered sex, gambling, whatever, all of them keep us from being in the present moment, keep us from right here, right now and hence from what really is, what really is God.
Maybe that drink allows you to not think about that thing that happened at work today. We can tend towards aversion, pushing away what is real. Or those scratch tickets let you hover on the possibility of a different future, or that sexual fantasy keeps you focused only on that one thing, a hunger, clinging, grasping to things that are not the whole truth, if it is true at all. Or the blur of drugs, even the comic mellow of the now legal cannabis flower, they can delude us, confuse us, make the world appear to be something that it really isn’t. All these things, they are distractions from what is real. And what, according to St. Paul, according to the teaching of the church, what is most real? God. The ground of all being. That within which we live and move and have our being.
Ecstasy or pleasure is not the problem. Ecstasy and pleasure are extraordinary gifts from God. C2H6O, ethanol is not the problem. Wisdom mixed her wine, and I am glad. Jesus turned water into wine, good wine; a miracle from God. Marijuana, in my experience on the street at least, is significantly less problematic then alcohol. I know only one person whose life has been destroyed by pot (and a couple by pot laws); I can’t count how many lives, how many families I have encountered devastated by drinking. It is not these things that are the problem, it is our relationship with them that is, or can be. It is drunkenness that is the problem, that is Paul’s point here. And we can become drunk on so many things, as so many things distract us, pull us away from what is really important. From those we love, our friends and family; from our vocation, our doing what we are supposed to be doing; from ourselves, from facing who we actually are; and most importantly, we are pulled, pushed, distracted in every way from that which is, from the true nature of things, from God in Christ with the Holy Spirit which we encounter with bright eyes and bushy tails, or at least sober ones right here and right now.
Don’t worry. Enjoy the fruits of the very fine vines of the Willamette Valley. Eugene has some of the best beer in the world. At clergy conference the Bishop wasn’t pro-marijuana, but when asked directly about the new legal climate he didn’t speak against it, either. I’m just saying. So next time you have a glass of wine with dinner, or a beer after mowing the lawn, (that is if you do that), all that I ask, all that I think St. Paul would ask, is that you ask yourself, or someone you love, why you do that, why do they do that. And the harder that question is to answer, the more important it is to ask. AMEN