Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
June 17, 2018
Texts: Psalm 31; Jeremiah 19:1-10
Alerted by neighbors, when the police came, they found a crying baby about six months old. The parents were both dead on the bathroom floor from a drug over-dose. They had been young people in their mid-twenties and had come from good middle-class families. Their dis-traught parents couldn’t understand what had happened to them, why they had been driven to using the fentanyls that caused their deaths. Something had broken down and now they had a new baby to raise.
In the year 2016, 164 persons in Monmouth County alone died from drug overdoses, most from fentanyl and heroin combinations. The New Jersey counties with the highest death rates were Ocean, Atlantic, Essex, and Camden giving our state a total of 2221 drug related deaths. This is not just an inner city phenomenon. Over a third of the deaths were white young people in what used to be considered suburban areas; African-Americans com-prised about a quarter of the deaths, the number in Essex County contributing to that. The Hispanic population accounted for about 15 percent and Asians constituted less than 3 percent of the total.
New Jersey has a higher death rate than the rest of the Nation as a whole. Who are these broken vessels of despair? They are mostly young but also middle aged. What is it that drives a person to find solace in these drugs?
In some sense, those who are driven to drugs reflect what Jimmy Carter once called a “malaise.” People didn’t want to hear that and he was chided for it. But that word is an apt description of how many feel and what drives them to cheer on and support imagined enemies of their nostalgic past.
Several years ago two Princeton economists published a paper describing the real shift in mortality rates from 1990 to 2014; it startled many with its data and the implications for our society. The sharpest rise in deaths has been among young people ages 25 to 34. The rise in deaths did not just come from drug overdoses but from suicides as well.
This past week an ESL teacher I know had to cancel her class because her son’s sister-in-law had hanged herself; a mother of two small children, she was only 38. A broken vessel, she now leaves her husband wondering what he could have done to prevent this tragedy. How will he explain to the children, ages 2 and 5 that their mother did such a thing?
Sociologists note that mortality rates are one of the most sensitive measures of the quality of life in a society. Last year one of the authors of the study, Ann Case, said, there’s a real rumbling that bad things are coming down the pike.” She noted that the death rate for middle-aged whites was rising in contrast with those of every other rich country even while the traditional killers for this age group – heart disease, HIV, and cancer – went down.
We are now experiencing a broken vessel in the society, the Nation. How do we heal and put ourselves back together again? We are not Humpty Dumpty, at least I hope not because if we are, it will get worse, much worse, and not just in deaths, but in the responses we see to political rhetoric and demagoguery.
It’s far too simplistic to say, “Just trust in God.” This morning’s Psalm is an affirmation of trust in God, but this trust in God is not just to sit and wait and twiddle our thumbs. The word translated as “wait” also means “to hope.” And how is it that we have hope in God?
My favorite prophet of doom and gloom Jeremiah was faced with real danger as he spoke out against the rulers of his day. At the beginning of his public life Jeremiah had hope for the king at that time Josiah had worked to restore the worship of God in the temple.
Just a short review will put this in some perspective. Solomon taxed the people of his united kingdom very heavily creating rumblings in the north. On his death his son Rehoboam was unable to keep the nation united and ended up only being king of Judah, the southern portion with Jerusalem as the capital. The north was also known as Samaria and lasted until 720 when it was conquered by the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Judah survived until the Baby-lonian captivity of 587 BCE.
Enter Josiah who came to the throne as a child. According to Scripture, in the eighteenth year of his reign, he ordered the renovation of the Temple and as a result discovered the book of the Law of Moses. This is more or less the origin of the Book of Deuteronomy, a restatement of the law. However, Josiah was killed in the Battle of Megiddo in 609 and his successor became a vassal of Egypt. Judah finds itself caught between the Egyptians and the Babylonians.
Jeremiah was more than just a lamenter over the fate of Jerusalem as Judah was unable to hold its own when impinged on two sides. He also railed against the idolatries of the day. Like David he also was surrounded by enemies and cried to God for deliverance. The Psalm is an intensely personal cry to God for deliverance much like our personal cries to God.
How often we have cried to God in a similar fashion when beset by forces and difficulties we feel we cannot control. “Be gracious to me, O Lord,” we cry when in distress. We fear to become as broken vessels, unable to be mended no matter what the glue we use. The Psalm combines personal intensity with the feeling that society all about is also crumbling.
Jeremiah was also in a society crumbling about him. Although we here in the United States do not literally take our children to Baal as a burnt offering we are doing so by destroying our future as a Nation and society founded upon the principles of justice. True, equality in the eighteenth century meant something different than it does today, but that only makes sense as our understanding of fairness and justice have expanded to include previously excluded populations.
The broken vessels of our society have exhibited themselves more than just through opioid abuse and mor-tality rates. The broken vessels are also exhibited through the fears of people who feel they have been displaced by others. The old white middle class is shrinking and unable to embrace the growing diversity of our society, has re-sponded by its despair and nostalgia for a society that really did not exist except in their imagination. That’s the appeal of the fear mongers.
Like Jeremiah’s Jerusalem, parts of this Nation want to eat the flesh of their neighbors. A society that feels itself under siege cannot think beyond its own immediate fears. And those fears become transformed into despair. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control found that the suicide rate of farmers was higher than any other occup-ation, citing social isolation and financial losses as immed-iate causes. The 17 state study indicated it was five times higher than any other occupation and twice that of military veterans.
Those states are also the heart of the evangelical opposition to societal changes. In 2011 journalist Colin Woodward published a book called American Nations suggesting that we actually live in eleven cultures. We in New Jersey fall into the “New Netherland” culture. There are the “Midlands” to our west spreading from Penn-sylvania into Ohio. We are surrounded by Tidewater to the south and “Yankeedom” to the north. We clearly have more in common with the West Coast than with “Greater Appalachia,” the deep south, or the far west.
Although one may argue with the boundaries drawn by Woodward, it is clear that we live in a fractured society in our own state as well as in the Nation. So many people feel like broken vessels, having passed out of mind like one who is dead in the words of the Psalm. Offered quick fixes of drugs and demagoguery, they seek relief from their pain. But this is not just a comment on others but on our-selves as well. We in so-called liberal New Jersey are not so different.
We need to examine how we liberals look at and treat others who fall through the cracks. We cannot just hand out charity but we need to create a truly just society. We have enormous issues here in our state. The mortality rates due to drugs and suicides indicate that we, too, are broken vessels, and need more than glue to hold us together.
Jeremiah later uses the imagery of taking the clay and mixing it with water to make a new vessel, one that is not broken but whole. That is what we need to do. It is really difficult when we face those in our own state, in our own county, who despair so much that they take their own lives either accidently through drugs or intentionally through suicide.
The church has a role in this tragedy and although offering space for recovery programs is important, it needs to look beyond the personal into the societal. Despair is more than personal. It certainly was for David who called upon God to save him from his enemies. And it is for us as well.
Let us come to God in prayer: We are troubled, O God, by so much anger and pain in our Nation and our State. May we become the instruments of peace to bring healing to others and to ourselves as well. In the name of the One who was your healer, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.