“Reverse Motion Detectors” 02/17/2019 by Rev. Stacy Swain (Click on title for audio)

A few weeks back, there was an article in the Globe, about the work of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program.  The article featured a physician named Jessie Gaeta and it spoke of how she and the Program are responding to the opioid epidemic in Boston.   

         According to statistics from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health there were 2000 opioid related overdose deaths in Massachusetts in 2018[1].  Overdose by opioid is the leading cause of death among young people 18 to 35 years old.[2] Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program is on the front line of this crisis. 

         The magnitude of the crisis is huge and the solutions to it are complex. While it would be easy to become overwhelmed and to want to turn away, I was struck by how Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program does not.  Instead, Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program turns towards the crisis and in doing so came up with a life-saving move.   

         And that is in the bathrooms, they have installed “reverse motion detectors.”  The way these detectors work is that if the occupant of the bathroom fails to move for two minutes and 50 seconds, then an alarm goes off.  “Most always” reads the articles, “this means that a person has been knocked unconscious by an injected drug and is likely to die if nothing is done.”[3] 

         But with the reverse motion detectors sounding the alarm, people are not dying.  They are waking up, and with the continued care of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, they are finding their way to health and new life.       


         In today’s Gospel passage we read about another physician that was on the front line of a crisis.  Today, we read about One who has dedicated his life to the work of saving lives.  While Jesus did not have the use of reverse motion detector or Narcan, he did have what we see in the scripture for today.  He did have the Parable, and the witness that the kingdom of heaveen is at hand. 

         But before we go any further, Let us pray.  Holy one, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

         For the past three weeks, we have been hearing from Jesus as he taught the disciples in the great discourse called the Sermon on the Mount.  For these last many weeks, we have heard Jesus speak pretty clearly and directly to the disciples about God’s blessing for them, about how they are to live and how they are to pray.    

         After the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus come down the mount and begins healing people.  Jesus touches a leper, heals the servant of a Roman Centurion commander, then a woman.  Jesus heals two people who are possessed by demons, someone who is paralyzed, two men who are blind, a little girl and a woman who has been bleeding for years.   

         Jesus goes to the people who others have turned away from.  He makes a move towards them – to bring them to new life. 

         That takes us to our scripture for today. Great crowds have gathered on the shoreline.  Jesus decides to get into a boat and push off a bit from the shore so that he can speak.  And then, he begins to speak to them through parables.


         I find this rather odd.  Just when Jesus is drawing his biggest crowds yet, just when his movement is really starting to build steam, he decides to speak to them in parables?  Why wouldn’t he have saved his most compelling and clearest oratory for when the most people have gathered?  Instead he chooses to use the parable, a kind of riddle really that at first seems pretty straight forward, but that the more one thinks about the pairing of images in them, the more bewildering the comparison become. 

         The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field.  The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.  The kingdom of heaven is like yeast.   

         If we were to imagine the kingdom of heaven chances are it has nothing to do with any of these images.  If we were to imagine what the kingdom of heaven looks like I bet many of us would start to see pearly gates and St. Peter checking his.  

         And for those in Jesus day?  Well, I bet that the kingdom of heaven looked more to them like the overthrow of the Roman Empire and the restoration of Davidic rule more than it did like a field, a mustard seed or a handful of yeast.  

         So why Jesus?  Why the parable at this key point in your ministry?


         I have come to understand that Jesus must have decided to use the parable, because when he looked out at that great crowd, I think he could see the crisis that he was facing.  I think that he could see people who had fallen asleep.  People who had fallen asleep to their own worth and beauty.  People who had fallen asleep to the miracle of what it is to be alive.  People who had fallen asleep to the potential within them and for their lives, the miraculous seed that God had planted within each and every one of them. 

         If I were in his sandals, I can imagine that I could have easily felt overwhelmed, wanting to turn away from the enormity of it all, but that is not what Jesus does.  Instead, what Jesus does is turn towards the need and move in.   

         He engages.  He begins to wake them up.  He uses the parable because parables works on the mind and heart.  Parables cracks open assumptions, peaks curiosity and sparks imagination. Parables draws the listener in; gets the listener to engage and to question. 

         And that is what turns a crowd into a congregation.  Doing the good and hard work of cracking open assumptions and peaking curiosity, drawing one in to engage and to question, that is what turns one from an onlooker into a disciple. 

         For in that moment, I think, Jesus saw in the crowd what the parables he choose to use describe.  As he looked out at that gathered crowd, I think he also saw — what the kingdom of heaven looks like.

         I believe when he looked at them on the shoreline, he saw wheat and weeds.  Saints and sinners in each and every one and loved them all the more.  I believe he saw how the seed of love that God had planted in them all could come to fruition in wonderful, abundant exuberant ways, much like that mustard seed when fully grown  is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.  I believe he looked at them and saw, how God was even then mixing her yeast into their lives and I believe he could see Holy Leavening happening right there.  


         Now I was not a part of the conversations that led to putting those reverse motion detectors in the bathrooms of Boston Health Care for the Homeless program.  But having worked there for many years before becoming your pastor I can very well imagine what they must have been like.  For I remember, Dr. Gaeta saying once at a meeting that healing does not begin with prescription pads or treatment plans.  Healing begins, she said, with trust.  I can hear her even now saying, “I can write dozens prescriptions and delineation treatment plan after treatment plan.  But if I do not first cultivate a relationship of trust then none of the rest of what I do is really going to matter.”

         And so building trust is what Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program does.  It accepts people where they are without judgement, it holds up a vision of what is possible and what healing could look like.  It pledges to walk along side and it refuses to give up.  And when one passes out in the bathroom, it sounds the alarm and rushes in so that that one may be brought back to life. 

         The reverse motion detectors and Narcan works to save lives, because those that need their lives saved, trust BHCHP enough to come into that house of healing in the first place.


         We do not have reverse motion detectors in our bathrooms here at church, at least not yet. But I would love to see the day when we too would have a need for them.  I would love to see the day when we become a house of healing that is so trust worthy that those in need healing and saving will trust us enough to come in. 

         For we too, seek to be a place of acceptance without judgement.  A place that holds up a vision for what is possible and what healing can look like.  A place where to walk with one another and refuse to give up on each other.   


         I believe that we are entering a new chapter in what it means to be the Union Church in Waban.  That does not mean that we are leaving behind where we have come or the traditions that have shaped us.  What I think it does mean is that we are  being invited to extend who we are and the traditions that have shaped us with even greater welcome and invitation out into the world. 

         For example:  It strikes me that while “Overdose by opioid is the leading cause of death among young people 18 to 35 years old,[4]  it is precisely this same demographic that for the most part, is missing when we gather here Sunday after Sunday. What could that say to a move that we may be ready to make?

         Like the crowd that gathered on the beach that day, we too have a lot of waking up to do.  We to have much to grapple with and to learn.  But let me also assure you that while I am no Jesus, not in the least, it is clear to me that the kingdom of heaven is at hand in this place as well. 

         I see wheat sprouting even now among the weeds.  I have seen in just this last week, multiple examples of ones drawing alongside others and giving so fully and generously to help that one in a time of profound transition.  And I see how that little mustard seed of faith our founding ancestors of faith planted in this soil over a hundred years ago is growing right before our eyes and even now is giving a home so that the birds of the air may come and make nests in our branches. 

         And as for that yeast?  Well, I for one am seeing how God has been at work mixing her yeast into the measures of our Sunday school and youth program.  And my goodness what leavening is happening there!

         And so, let us pray:  God wake us up to what you see in us and help us to see what you see in others.  Help us to become a house of healing for all people so that the goodness that you have seeded in all of us and in all creation may become your kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  May it be so.  Amen

[1] https://www.mass.gov/files/documents/2019/02/12/Opioid-related-Overdose-Deaths-among-MA-Residents-February-2019.pdf

[2] https://www.yalemedicine.org/stories/overcoming-opioid-addiction/

[3] https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2019/01/15/when-this-ceiling-alarm-sounds-she-becomes-lifesaver/j5qq2Kn9ghPIpwrkXw5VhL/story.html#comments

[4] https://www.yalemedicine.org/stories/overcoming-opioid-addiction/