March 21, 2021, Die Where You Are Planted, John 12:20-33 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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I have been reading a long article this past week about a rural area in West Virgina. From the people the journalist interviewed, and the settings she described – small-town cafes, little league games, close families, and a chronic lack of jobs – she could have been describing Norwood, or Massena, or anyplace in the North Country. And like our area, like so many areas of our country, the people in that area of West Virgina have been very hard hit by the opioid epidemic. West Virginia, in fact, has the highest overdose death rate in the U.S. And that’s the focus of the article.
In one sense, it’s a very sad article. It describes so many tragedies, so many lives in chaos, so many families grieving. But it also talks about the people who are doing something about the problem. I was especially struck by an interview the journalist did with three women who live in a town called Martinsburg: Tina Stride, Tara Mayson, and Lisa Melcher. Tina had a twenty-six year old son who was in recovery, Tara had a close friend who had gone through periods of addiction. Lisa had lost a son-in-law from an overdose, and her thirty-two year old daughter was still struggling to overcome heroin addiction. All three of them had known addicts who wanted to get clean, but had no place to go. These three women had met, and together they had taken on a mission. Like car-pool moms with a life-or-death assignment, they began driving people to detox facilities all over the state – any place that could take them, sometimes as far as five hours away. They called themselves the “Hope Dealer Project.”
The journalist sat down with these Hope Dealer ladies and coffee from McDonalds, to hear their stories. They talked about helping a woman whose twenty-one year old son was a heroin addict. The family had private insurance, so they were able to sign him up for rehab in New Hampshire. Tina went to their home to help them get ready to head to the airport. But shortly after she left them, Tina got a call from the mother, in a panic. “My son’s lips are blue – he’s overdosed. What do I do?” Tina told her to call 911, and she rushed back to their house. The son was taken to the hospital, but as soon as he was released the mother called Tina again. And the mother asked her, ‘Instead of putting him on a plane, can we drive him? Because I want to know he makes it.’” So they drove him, eight hours, to detox.” Tina said, “Praise God, he made it.”
They talked about a time when Tina had to keep a woman overnight at her home, because there wasn’t a bed available for her until the morning. She recalled, “All I said was, ‘Please don’t rob me. I’m here to help you. But I guess if you are gonna rob me there’s not a whole lot I can do about it.’ I tried to stay up, but I knew I had to drive four hours to the detox place and four hours back. So I slept some. We were up at 4 a.m., and at the detox place at eight. And she’s doing good now – she calls me to touch base sometimes.”
As mothers, these women feel like they have a particular ability to communicate with women who need help with their addicted children. “When moms reach out to us,” Lisa says, “we’re like, ‘We’ve got this.’ When you’re in that space? Oh my gosh, you can hardly breathe, you’re a cryin’ mess.” Tina says, “When we come in and say, ‘Mom, we’re gonna take care of your child’ – I don’t care if that child is fifty years old – you see a relief.”
Six months after this article was published, the journalist received an email from Lisa to tell her that Christina, Lisa’s daughter, had fatally overdosed on heroin. Christina, she said, had completed rehab several times. She’d been clean for three months when she overdosed. Lisa wrote, “When a child passes away, the last thing a mother wants to say is that the child was an addict.” But she plans to continue her volunteer work, in honor of Christina’s “beautiful but tortured life.”
Lisa, Tina and Tara are women with lives and interests and problems of their own, like all of us. But they have chosen to lay down a lot of things we take for granted: their time, their privacy, their safety, their comfort. All three women have experienced a lot of loss in their own personal lives. But because they have given up so much, the Hope Dealer Project has saved a lot of lives, and it has given comfort to so many people, mothers and other friends and family who were alone in their pain and fear and grief, and who didn’t know where to go for help.
We read the verse this morning where Jesus says to his disciples, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” We all know that verse. We’ve all heard it a thousand times. But I think so often we have a tendency to spiritualize the things that Jesus said to us. We have vague thoughts of saints and martyrs of the faith who have literally given their lives for their faith. But for ourselves, we don’t expect to be anything that extreme or important or scary, right? So then, what does it really mean for us to fall into the ground and die? What does that look like, in real life? How do we go about following Jesus? I think it’s really hard for us to understand that in the context of our everyday lives.
But when I read that article this week, it seemed to me that these three West Virginia ladies give us a down-to-earth, you-can-try-this-at-home example of what Jesus is talking about. One thing that really stands out is that dying to ourselves doesn’t mean that we stop caring about the things and people in our lives. People who die to themselves, we imagine, detach themselves from material goods and human connections and ambitions. But we see just the opposite in the lives of Tina and Tara and Lisa. These three women care passionately about their families and their friends and their village. The Hope Dealer Project wasn’t born of detachment, it was born of love. Those three ladies didn’t stop being anxious about the struggles of their children. They expanded their caring to the children of their neighbors and well. And I’m sure there have been a lot of days when they expanded their own suffering as well.
Not holding onto their lives, for Tina and Tara and Lisa, means being willing to embrace the pain of others because they understand it, because they have known that same pain in their own lives. And it means a lot of very down-to-earth stuff, like spending hours and hours in a car with very sick people, and getting calls when they are already exhausted, and letting strangers – strangers who are drug addicts – into their homes, and just sitting and weeping with mothers who have lost a child because there’s nothing else left to do. But because they do those things, because they reach out, lives are saved, and hearts are comforted, and there is healing. That is what it means for Tina, and Tara, and Lisa to not try to save their own lives in this world. That’s what it looks like for those three women to fall into the ground and die, so that they can bear much fruit.
On Fridays in Lent, we meet at noon here in the church for what we call the “Stations of the Cross”, which means that we follow in the footsteps of our Lord as he walked through the last day here on earth. Like the story of the Hope Dealer Project, it’s not really what most of us think of as very spiritual either. It is as down-to-earth as we could possibly imagine. We see a man, Jesus, condemned by false witnesses and political corruption. We see him weakened by abuse and loss of blood, forced to carry a heavy beam. We watch him fall under its weight, three times. We see his mother and the other women weeping, desolate, helpless in their fear and grief. We see acts of kindness, a woman who wipes the sweat and blood from Jesus’s face with a cloth, a strong man coming in from the countryside who takes the beam from Jesus’s shoulders for awhile. We watch the soldiers pound iron nails through his hands and feet. We hear his last ragged breath. We follow him to the tomb. Out of his great love, Jesus embraced the pain and suffering of the whole world, not in some spiritual way, but literally, in the flesh. And in his dying, his literal, in-the-flesh dying, he brought us life.
Following Jesus, dying to ourselves, isn’t some kind of spiritual, other-worldly exercise. It is a very real and concrete and down-to-earth sort of thing – though, of course, like all things sacramental, every part of our life in Christ has an inward and spiritual reality as well. But just like the seeds of different plants are completely different in size and shape and color, so dying to ourselves isn’t going to be the same from one person to the next. Jesus gave us the example to follow as he walked through the streets of Jerusalem to the cross. The three moms from West Virginia heard his call in the context of their own lives, and with the Hope Dealer Project they are answering it in their own unique way.
But the question for each one of us is: how is Jesus calling you to lay down your own, particular, unique life, and follow him? What have you experienced, what have you suffered in your own life that Jesus is expanding to allow you to understand and embrace someone else’s sufferings? Maybe you have known the pain of losing a child. Maybe you have struggled with addiction, or depression, or poverty, or betrayal. Maybe you have suffered abuse. What personal sorrows and struggles have you gone through in your life that give you the ability to understand and comfort and strengthen someone who is struggling with something similar? What fruit have you seen springing up when you lay down your time, or your rights, or your comfort, or your privacy, just out of compassion? What does it look like as you, you yourself, follow Jesus? What does it look like today – and where is he calling you to go from here? And, what else, what other things are you still holding onto that could be planted in the earth of someone else’s pain, so Jesus can bear even more fruit in you?