Monday, January 23, 2017

Do Not Hide Your Face From Me (1/22/17)
He Qi, Calling Disciples

On Sunday, January 22, all of the members of the Belle Vernon Area Ministerium addressed the heroin epidemic in our community. In my sermon I told the story of Casey Schwartzmier, a young woman who died from a heroin overdose. We examined the image of light in the darkness in the Isaiah passage and Christ's call to discipleship in the Gospel of Matthew, and how those scriptures call us to act.
Do Not Hide Your Face From Me (1/22/17)

          Good morning! I saw something posted on Facebook the other day—no, this isn’t a joke about politics or about the Steelers—and the story grabbed hold of me. It was an obituary for a young woman named Casey Schwartzmier. She was 20 years old; she died from a heroin overdose. (Note: this story went viral. The link above is to a story that ran in Sunday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)
          At least two of my Facebook friends shared this story, so perhaps some of you have seen it, too. According to the obituary:
Casey never wanted to be defined only by her addiction and mistakes; she was so much more than that. She made it clear if she was to ever pass as a result of it she wanted people to know the truth with the hope that honesty about her death could help break the stigma about addicts, and get people talking about the problem of addiction that is taking away so many young lives.[1]
I never met this young woman, and as far as I know, she had no connections to this congregation, so it feels a little strange to share her story. Yet it’s clear that she wanted her story to be told. Her parents wanted us to know that Casey loved animals and children. They wanted us to know that she was an organ donor. They wanted us to know that their daughter’s life mattered.
          Casey lived in the North Hills, but her story is all too familiar here in the Mon Valley. In fact, I know that many of you have offered prayers and expressed concerns for the family of Wes Bradley. Wes lost his battle with addiction a few weeks ago. I don’t know how many of you noticed, but there’s a letter on the bulletin board from Lanny Bradley, Wes’ father. It’s a letter of thanks from Lanny for all the prayers, cards, notes, and messages of support for Wes’ family, as well as the many fruit baskets and personal visits that they received.
          In that letter, Lanny also wanted to express what a kind and generous person Wes was. It reminds me a lot of the obituary I read. Like Casey, Wes was also an organ donor. Lanny wanted us to know that his son was more than just an addict. Wes was human being whose kindness and humanity were always on display. By writing this letter, Lanny took control of the story; death and addiction do not get the final say.
          I think both of our Old Testament readings—the lesson from Isaiah and the psalm—speak into this conflicted reality of despair and hope. The central image in both of these passages is light shining in the darkness:
This image of light breaking through the darkness is a powerful means to capture both a sense of fear, hopelessness and anguish that is to be associated with not being able to see in the dark, and the hope, relief and deliverance that comes with the light being switched on—or in a world before electricity, the fire being kindled, the candle or oil lamp lit up. The joy and sense of relief that comes from light in the darkness is universal indeed—ask any toddler who is terrified of the dark.[2]
The light chases away the darkness and the fear. The Psalmist begins by saying, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” It’s interesting that the light comes before the salvation.
          We’re very used to living in a world where light comes to us with the flick of a switch or the push of a button on a cell phone. Physical darkness is easy to chase away. Spiritual darkness is a very different thing. Spiritual darkness is riddled with fear and uncertainty.
          Fear interrupts faith. Let me repeat that. Fear interrupts faith. When I’m afraid, all I can see is that big scary thing right in front of my face or somewhere in the future. I have a friend named Sara. She lives very close to the margins. Her car needs some repairs, but she can’t afford to have the work done. She was afraid it wouldn’t pass inspection, so she didn’t have it inspected. She still drives it, but she lives in fear of getting pulled over. But she needs her car to get to work. Sometimes she has trouble seeing past these fears.
          Addiction to drugs and alcohol also causes a great deal of fear and anxiety, both for the addict and for the addict’s loved ones. Heroin addiction seems to stoke all of our fears in a way that other drugs do not. For a long time, heroin was somebody else’s problem. Most addicts were concentrated in the inner city; heroin was an urban problem. Frankly, many people were less concerned when it seemed that heroin was confined to communities of color. Today, heroin is everywhere. Washington and Westmoreland counties have some of the highest rates of overdoses in the nation.
          I’m sure that most of you know an addict or two. You probably also know the families of an addict, or perhaps you have a family member who is struggling with addiction. Even if it hasn’t touched you directly, you’ve heard the stories. You’ve heard that the addict has to lie and steal to support his or her habit. You’ve heard of the person who was in and out of rehab, but couldn’t stay clean. You’ve heard of the parents who had to kick their child out of the house, because they refused to tolerate the lying and the stealing any longer.
          I know a pastor whose daughter who was addicted to alcohol. For most of us, alcohol seems less scary. But eventually, this pastor had to tell his daughter to leave. He and his wife lived in constant fear that they would get a call from the police, asking them to identify her body. One day he decided to write her funeral service, because he knew he’d never be able to write the service after he got that call. Every family of an addict faces those fears on some level. We expect heroin addicts to overdose. We expect them to get diseases. We expect that they may die.
          Now put yourself in the shoes of the heroin addict. Most addicts try to kick the habit; they get clean for a little while, but the addiction is so strong. They know that they’ve harmed their friends and family, but the addiction is so strong. They want to stop because they know they’ve hurt themselves and their loved ones, but the addiction is so strong, and so is the hurt they’ve inflicted. They’ve burned so many bridges that they’re afraid to reach out to their loved ones. Perhaps they’re afraid that they are no longer loved, so what’s the point? Perhaps some think that God has abandoned them. I suspect many families of addicts wonder if God as abandoned them, too.
          Fear interrupts faith; it can be hard to see God at work in our lives. This seems to be the very same fear that the Psalmist expresses when he cries out to the Lord: “Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!”
          Isaiah spoke his prophecies in Judah, the southern kingdom. He saw the Assyrian Empire defeat and destroy Israel, the northern kingdom. The Assyrians also threatened to destroy Judah. This was the darkness of Isaiah’s time; the fear that was in front of the nation. Yet Isaiah never lost faith that God would deliver the people of Judah; he gives thanks to God: “You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy;” God will remove the yoke of the oppressor.
          In Isaiah’s time, the people were looking for a new king, another King David, who would drive off the Assyrians. A century later it was the Babylonians. In Jesus’ time, it was the Romans. But that wasn’t the Messiah that God sent. Jesus didn’t lead an army to victory; he conquered sin and death. Jesus worked differently, and we must also work differently.
          In this morning’s gospel lesson, Jesus also uses the imagery of light shining in the darkness. In fact, Jesus quotes the text from Isaiah: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” Jesus is that light!
          Yes, Jesus calls for sinners to repent, but he also calls the disciples to follow him and share the message of God’s love for humanity. He calls Simon and Andrew, and then James and John. They were all fishermen; they all drop their nets and follow Jesus’ call. There’s no conversation, no discussion, they just follow. What about us? How are we supposed to follow Christ in the midst of this heroin epidemic?
          Let’s be honest, God’s face can be hard to see during addiction. We have to shine the light of Christ’s love into that darkness. Remember what we heard in last Sunday’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus said, “I was a prisoner and you visited me.” But the people were surprised; they asked Jesus when they had visited him, and Jesus responded, “any time you have done this for the least of my brothers and sisters, so you have done it for me.”
          Jesus offers light in the midst of the darkness—the very image that Isaiah offers, a vision of what life could and should be:
[Without that vision] people indeed might remain trapped in darkness. The prophet’s objective in providing his readers images of light while it is still dark, joy while people are still sorrowing, peace when the war is still raging is captured well in the oft quoted axiom of William Arthur Ward: “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it.”[3]
When I hear the stories of people like Wes or Casey, I hear stories of what might have been. Their lives were incomplete visions of what life could and should be—they could see the light, but they couldn’t quite pull themselves out of the darkness.
          We cannot and must not hide our faces from those who are suffering—whether it’s addicts or their families—we have to show our faces to those who are touched by addiction. The Church must be a part of this response. First, we can do this by praying with and for those who are struggling with addiction, and then praying with and for the families and loved ones of the addicts. And then we have to be available to those who are suffering.
          That doesn’t mean that you all have to become addictions counselors. And it doesn’t mean that you have to provide financial or material support to an addict in your family. It does mean that you have to listen and you have to respond with Christ’s love. As I mentioned at the beginning of worship today, the Belle Vernon Area Ministerium is holding three ecumenical services of prayer and worship this week. That’s a place to start. If we want to ease the suffering in this community, then we have to put ourselves in a place to hear the stories of those people who are suffering and those who are in recovery. Thanks be to God. Amen.

          Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ. We are called to participate in His saving work. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Let all God’s children say, Amen!

[2] Juliana Claassens, “Commentary on Isaiah 9:1-4,” retrieved from:
[3] Claassens.

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