Naloxone Saves. A Sermon

Written for Naloxone Saves, an Overdose Awareness Day event in Cleveland

I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you all here today. There has been so much grief. So much unnecessary loss. Seeing you here, it’s good for my heart.

I was 20 on the day of Kotschi’s funeral. It was in a large church, not far from here. The sky was December grey and the sanctuary was full. His parents sat in the front of the church, his friends in the back. He was 22.

A year before he had asked me to marry him. I wanted to finish college first so I’d told him no. He died a year later, after overdosing on heroin and crack at the local Motel 6.

We sat quiet and still in that church. Cold, a bit emptier inside. And so the pastor’s words had room to echo when he softly lamented just how easily Kotschi could have avoided going to hell. It echoed through us when he condemned us to the same fate. He told us that only the altar could save us. But we knew better.

See, we had been saving each other for years. Maybe our families kicked us out, our schools, our churches, but we remained. We loved each other through rehab, relapse, poverty, death.

We knew better. And what that Pastor did that day, it was not the work of the Gospel. Shame, is never the work of the Gospel. It is death dealing. Our dignity and our divinity, they are related. You cannot wound one without harming the other.

We are long past Easter, but it is my favorite holiday. And before going to Seminary, I thought Easter was a day. But it is actually a season. It stretches from Easter Sunday to Pentecost. Because Easter, is meant to be a new way of living.

I love it because it reminds me to honor and celebrate the simple and profound ways that people resurrect their lives every day. People change, they come back from the brink, they strive to bring their communities back to life. Every day people defy the destructive forces of the world by choosing dignity, grace, and connection. It is worthy of our celebration.

And I think it’s what that Pastor forgot that day. What too many too many of us have forgotten. That Christians are called to be an Easter people. A resurrection people.

When I think of resurrection I think of my friend Dave. After Kotschi died, he came to live with me at school. He was trying to quit heroin and needed a change of scenery. He slept on my floor and I remember coming home to him after class. He would be laying on his back listening to the same Johnny Cash record, over and over again. For Dave, those songs were hymns of survival.

After a few months he felt more confident and decided to move back home. Over the next year I finished school, and after graduation I moved home too. I called him the day I got back and we made plans. But he never showed up. I didn’t worry much. But a week went by and he wasn’t returning my calls. Right when I started to worry, Dave called and asked if I wanted to go for a drive.

That was what we did for fun. We’d drive. Through the metroparks, near farms, just away. For hours.

We were an hour or so into our drive that day, when he apologized for standing me up. Then he got sort of quiet and told me he had overdosed that day. He’d died. He’d decided to use one more time and because his tolerance was low, it killed him.

Luckily his Mom came home unexpectedly. She found him unconscious and called the paramedics. They were able to revive him with 3 doses of Naloxone.

But he’d been dead. And now he is alive. Real life resurrection.

He owns his own business now. He’s married to an incredible woman and they have a daughter. Her name, is Grace….

That wasn’t the day I learned about Naloxone. In fact, neither of us knew what he’d been given. Nobody ever told us. We didn’t understand how his life had been saved. Only that it had been. I didn’t learn about Naloxone until I started working at the Harm Reduction Coalition. 8 years and too many deaths later.

Naloxone, which is also sometimes called Narcan, is a medication that blocks the effects of opiates like vicodin, codeine, oxycontin, heroin, and fentanyl. It’s ability to block opiates means that it can be used to stop or reverse an opiate overdose.

It saves lives. It’s easy to use, low risk, and comes in 3 forms. You can get it as an injection, a nasal spray, and most recently an auto injector, which has a voice recording that walks you through all the necessary steps.

But even among a media frenzy about the new opiate overdose crisis, one that is not new to communities of color or those living on the streets, many people still don’t know that Naloxone exists or how to use it.

In fact, I invite you to pay attention to news articles and segments about opiate overdose. And if they do not also include information about Naloxone, I encourage you to contact the reporter and ask for an amendment to be made. It is unacceptable to report on this unnecessary loss of life without also informing people about how these lives can be saved.

In 2016, over 4,000 people died in Ohio from an accidental drug overdose. We are on track to surpass that number this year. Many of those deaths were preventable, but we have not given people what they need to survive.

Harm Reduction, one of many approaches to drug use, has sometimes been controversial. But it shouldn’t be. Certainly not in churches.

Harm Reduction is described as ”a set of practical strategies aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use”. For example, giving people access to Naloxone reduces the risk of death by overdose. Harm reduction uses a spectrum of strategies from safer use, to managed use, to abstinence, in order to meet drug users where they’re at. It is a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs.”

Simply put. It is is meeting people where they are at and supporting them in keeping themselves as safe, healthy, and connected as possible. Without the condition of their sobriety.

Theologically put, it is the unconditional love of God. The love of neighbor. The work of the Gospel.

I worked at the Harm Reduction Coalition almost all of my time in seminary. In some ways they were strange worlds to try and marry. But as time went on I came to see them as connected.

I went to seminary to learn how to bury my dead with dignity, because nobody else had. But it was Harm Reduction that taught me that resurrection was possible.

Across the country, those doing overdose prevention work like Project DAWN, and those sitting behind us, have handed out countless doses of Naloxone. Collectively, they have helped save thousands of lives.

But those lives were not saved by professionals, or clergy, or even paramedics. They were saved by drug users. The vast majority of overdose reversals are completed by people who use drugs. And so it is drug users and their loved ones that must have access to Naloxone.

This is something Ohio has begun to recognize by making Naloxone available at some pharmacies without a prescription and passing Good Samaritan Laws that offer limited immunity to those who respond to an overdose. But there is more to be done.

As a church we must recognize that we have a role in ending this crisis. And it might start with repentance.

Drug users have been doing the gospel work that the church has been avoiding. They have been preaching resurrection. And we are missing it. Worse than that, we are making it harder.

We make it harder, when we attach shame, stigma, and yes, sin, to issues of drug use and addiction.

We make it harder when we suggest that connection to God requires our purity.

We make it harder, when we treat people who use drugs like the “other”, instead of like a child of God. Whether they or living on the street or sitting in the pew beside us.

We make it harder when we draw distinctions between the saved and the lost. As if we aren’t always both.

We make it harder, when we allow people to use words like Junkie without objection, because we know that God does not make junk.

The Gospel reading today reminds us that as Christians we are charged to raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. What if that is not a metaphor?

What if the demon, isn’t what we think it is? What if the demon is shame? Perhaps the Gospel is asking us to cast out shame and stigma from our places of worship, from our hearts, from our loved ones. Perhaps the Gospel is asking us to see how too often, it is us that turn drug users into lepers, so it must also be us that frees them from that title.

It is possible to be people of resurrection. Naloxone is just one of many tools that helps us to raise the dead, in body and in spirit. It begins with recognizing that every life is worth saving. Every life is valuable. Whether they get sober and start a business, or continue to use. Every life is beloved by God, even it’s messy.

Afterall, scripture teaches us that when you sit in the mess, when you do not leave someone to die alone on their cross, when instead you sit at the foot of it, and are willing to accompany them to the tomb, then you are there to be first witness to resurrection.

It’s not easy. Or simple. Not everyone lives. Sometimes the tomb stays sealed. And always there is grief.

Grief does not only come when a life is lost. So many of us carry the invisible weight of grief with us everywhere we go. We have lost someone we loved or a relationship or a plan for our future.

And I wonder if some of the hostility directed at drug users is actually just a distortion of our grief. An attempt to protect ourselves from being hurt again. We harden so we do not feel the hurt of disappointment or anger or fear. We harden so it hurts a little less when we see people we love struggling with something we have no control over. It is a form of armor that I know well.

But I am not sure it is working. There is still so much hurt. It just goes untended. For drug users. For their loved ones. For our communities.

We deserve better. We deserve to grieve. Drug users deserve love, respect, and dignity. Drug users deserve the chance to live, even if their choices grieve us.

For me, today, resurrection is getting to look into this audience and see faces I feared I’d lose. For me, today, resurrection is getting to speak Kotschi’s name, Erich Kotschi, in this place, from this pulpit, with my voice. Knowing that there is no threat of hell. Knowing instead, that people are gathered to learn a skill that could have saved his life. Meaning that somewhere, here, there is a group of people gathered who knows that his life was worth saving. That he was beloved by God. No matter what. And that we all are.

12 years have passed since his funeral. And many of the people who sat beside me that day have died. They lost their lives to overdose or suicide. Like I said, shame… it is death dealing.

Last Thursday I got a chance to travel to New York where a group of clergy and harm rerductionists gathered to discuss the role of communities of faith in addressing the opioid overdose crisis. Marilyn Reyes, a harm reduction leader, activist, and former drug user, reminded us that

“Words can be death or life.” We must speak life into people and not death.”

More than that. We can and must be agents of resurrection. We can help to bring our communities back to life. We can share the good news that Naloxone exists, we can be ready to use it, we can treat people who use drugs like they are part of our beloved community, because they already are.

We are not saved at the altar alone. It takes a kin-dom. It takes a willingness. We have the power to help save lives.

The power of resurrection is in this room. Today. Because it lives within us. In our hearts, in our hands. We need only choose it. We need only claim our legacy as an Easter people in this Good Friday world.

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