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Romans 3:19-28

Attending the series on the Toxic Drug Crisis the past two Mondays at church have been eye-opening for me. We get a chance to sit down with people who dedicate their working lives to supporting people struggling with addictions, whether in a healthcare, shelter, or different setting. What strikes me is how much empathy they have for people struggling. They truly believe that everyone deserves second chances and they celebrate every victory. If they help just one person to stay alive and maybe even stabilize their lives, they count that a victory. When so many of us are overwhelmed by the constant news of people dying from overdose, from people unable to find their way in the system, meeting the people who work in addictions is a reminder that we also have systems in place that are working. We still need more, but it would be easy to discount how much good is being done by responses to addictions already. Many people are able to be housed and find stability are finding a place in Greater Victoria. When we see people struggling especially along Pandora Avenue and around town, it’s often people with the most acute cases. People who are struggling with addictions, mental health, homelessness, food scarcity, aversion to working with institutions, all at the same time. These people absolutely deserve the increased levels of care. But we shouldn’t forget the hundreds of people for whom responses to addictions are already working, who are receiving treatment for addictions, healthcare, housing, food, and pathways to education and employment. Realizing those pathways won’t work for everyone.

          These stories about addictions remind me about our gospel epistle from Romans. This favourite text for Lutherans that affirms we are “justified by faith apart from works…” One way to think about Paul’s talk about justification is that God is making things right within us. It is God who invites and we respond. Often only we realize we are incapable of saving ourselves, we recognize the gift of faith, Jesus’ love for us. So too people with addictions often hit rock bottom is when they respond to invitations to healing.

          The theology reading group currently is reading Nadia Bolz-Weber’s “Accidental Saints.” She is known for telling her own battle with addictions. Hitting rock bottom in her own life is partly why a Lutheran emphasis on grace is appealing. Just as it wasn’t anything she did that makes her life worthy of being saved, so too it’s nothing we do that makes us loved by God. I saw it with the healthcare workers that they see full humans in front of them yearning for healing. They see the brokenness and ways in which people continue injuring themselves or denying lifesaving aid. While some of us may not have had those struggles, some of us have struggled with addictions. This is a live issue for us in churches. And the point Paul is making is that all of us are utterly dependent upon a loving God to save us from the ways in which we estrange ourselves.

          Too often warped theologies of sin make it challenging understand why we need to be saved by God in the first place. Surely we aren’t awful people? But it’s not about being awful, so much as being trapped. Sin is about systems that are broken and lead to death. And we all know we don’t have to look very far to see systems collapsing all around us. Thinking about making plans for the summer, some of us hesitate to visit places we suspect will have bad wildfires in June, July, and August. “We should try to visit there in the fall or spring before the fire season gets really going.”

          I just had the privilege of joining a class trip on a boat to see 500 sea lions basking at Race Rocks, just off Metchosin. We saw seals, humpback whales feeding on schools of fish, and bald eagles searching for food in the water. I saw the joy in kids’ faces getting to see this animals in the wild. And the care with which the marine biologists explained to the kids what to look for, the different biomes and habitats in which animals live and plants grow around the Salish Sea. We know that it will take the continued care of creation as we struggle with climate change. While seeing that the sea lions, orcas, and eagles are worth fighting for.

Thinking about broken systems, war in the Holy Land is on our hearts and minds. So many civilians including children have died, especially in Gaza. It is heartbreaking and yet we see the ways in which power structures are aligned for things not to change. Yet we pray that before we hit rock bottom, we see the love of God, we see that our neighbours are human, and that we can veer away from genocide and destruction.

          I’ve witnessed the tensions in the Holy Land spill into everyday life here in Victoria and in the Multifaith Centre as we support Jewish, Muslim, and Christian students often with family ties to people at war. We’ve heard from Jewish neighbours fearful of escalating anti-Semitism. We’ve heard from Muslim neighbours who experience Islamophobia and a need to defend their right to protest for the lives of those in Gaza. In this context there isn’t as much room for mutual understanding as would hope for. One person’s protest is interpreted as a threat by another. To break out of this impasse we remain in dialogue, we continue building relationships, we keep doors open. And we also stand up for the vulnerable. It’s incomprehensible to think about the scale of the bombing of civilians in Gaza, including deaths of children. People without access to adequate food, water, healthcare, or places to flee.

          We know that others struggle else where considering the earthquakes in Afghanistan, ongoing war in Ukraine, and beyond. We know that staying glued to constant news updates doesn’t solve anything, but neither can be we look away. Partner churches in Jordan and the Holy Land offer updates, although that has become harder with the communications blackout in Gaza. We hear about ways we can support people through Canadian Lutheran World Relief, trusted partners who help people on the ground with humanitarian relief.

          One takeaway amidst the sadness of this conflict, is the Reformation principal that we are loved. That God’s love for us cannot be stripped from us. Whether under threat of addictions or war, the love God stay with us. We remain human, beloved creatures of God. And so in times of crisis, we remind ourselves that we and our neighbours are all beloved creatures of God. That our neighbours’ lives are worthy of being saved and fought for.

          Luther also called things they way they are. So when we see asymmetries and violations of international law, we need to name those things as they emerge. When something begins to look like genocide, we need to say these words out loud. So that together we can protect the lives of all our neighbours. That we can live into the promise that all life is sacred. That we live into ways of protecting the Salish Sea, so kids and grandkids may flourish. And remember Indigenous neighbours who continue showing us the way towards mutual flourishing.

          This Reformation Sunday may you know that you are loved. That you are worthy, that you are enough. And that God loves you and that you are worthy of being saved. Amen.