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October 22, 2017

Genesis 9:20-28

Proverbs 23:29-35

"A Story of Substance Abuse"

      Inspirational author Fredrick Buechner has written of how, when he was ten years old, his

alcoholic father took his own life.  His dad looked in on his two boys, went to the garage, made

sure all the doors were tightly closed, and started the family car.  For years following, Buechner

carried on an inner dialogue with his father.  During the course of that exchange, the son asked

the father, “Could I have stopped you daddy?  If I told you I loved you?  If I told you how I

needed you?”

      In 2008, Ruth Graham, daughter of Billy Graham, wrote a book entitled: In Every Pew Sits a

Broken Heart.  This morning, it is likely that many hearts sitting in these very pews have been

at least touched, if not broken, by substance abuse of one type or another.  Here in Ohio – in

the heartland of this nation -- we seem to be at the epicenter of this opioid epidemic.  In fact,

Ohio has recorded more deaths from fentanyl overdose than any other state in the union.  Just

in the past year, I’ve attended three funerals for persons whose lives were tragically ended by

this plague.  Along with Buechner and so many others, we are left with questions, as well as

with the intense pain of seeing one life after another snuffed out in their prime.  My cousin Dan

Letteri was one.  How does this happen?  To whom does this happen?  What is it like?  How can

we help?  

      In order to respond in ways that are helpful, we need information.  One source we can turn

to is the Bible.  While the Bible is not an instruction manual on fighting addiction, it certainly

offers some important insights and principles.  In fact, in this morning’s reading from the

ancient Hebrew Scriptures, we may very well encounter the first case of substance abuse.          (Read Genesis 9:20-28)

      As far as we can tell from the Biblical record, Noah was the first substance abuser.  Up to

this point, the Bible writers heap nothing but the highest praise upon Noah.  Of all those who

were alive at the time of the so-called “Great Flood,” Noah alone found favor in God’s sight.  In

service to God, Noah showed patience and perseverance; courage and conviction; devotion and

dedication.  There does not appear to be the slightest hint of a moral flaw or character weakness.  The bottom line is that Noah was a great guy!  Yet he is the first

one presented as fallen down drunk.  This leads us to a first powerful point.  There are no safe communities.  There are no safe families.  There are no safe

persons.  Anyone can become addicted, regardless of his or her life’s circumstances.  Substance abuse can happen to the best of persons; the most

upstanding of persons; those persons who display not the slightest hint of a moral flaw or

character weakness.  No one is immune.  May the acknowledgment of this fact keep us from

thinking badly of the addicted, and self-righteously of ourselves.

      Gerhard von Rad, an Old Testament scholar, in his commentary on Genesis gives Noah the

benefit of the doubt rather than judging him harshly.  The basis of von Rad’s grace is his observation that the author of Genesis introduces this account of Noah’s

drunkenness by saying that Noah was the first tiller of the soil; the first to grow a vineyard.  It could be assumed that Noah did not know what fermented grapes would

be like, or what the effects of the wine would be.  Von Rad claims that Noah did not willfully choose his condition.  Therein lays a second powerful point.  There is no

safe experimentation.  There’s a television public service

announcement warning against experimenting with any inebriating substance. It shows a girl

looking behind her and diving off a diving board.  What she does not see is that the pool is

empty.  Folks do not know what they’re diving into when they start using.  One high school

student reflected, “I was just curious.  I wanted to see what it would be like.  I never thought I’d

be addicted after just one time.”  It was methamphetamine.  And she was.  Addiction comes

unexpectedly.  We can call that powerful point three.

      Addiction, never expected, often comes through the legitimate use of medications for the

purpose of short and long-term pain relief.  These substances are legally prescribed by well-

meaning health care providers.  Yet this is frequently the gateway through which persons are

drawn into addictive patterns.  What begins as responsible use devolves into dangerous abuse.

It becomes the responsibility of the health care community, its providers and practitioners, to

closely oversee and monitor use of narcotic pain relievers.  It seems we’re just now beginning

to realize that such patient oversight has been very poorly administered.  So it then also be-

comes the larger community’s responsibility to speak to these systemic flaws, and to demand

changes in how, when and why potentially-abused substances are legally – and too often

serendipitously – dispensed.

      However it may come about, powerful point four is that substance abuse and addiction

lead to no good.  In Noah’s case, it led to embarrassment for the patriarch of the family, and

difficulties for his sons.  It was a strain on the family relationships and the dynamics between

siblings; and for generations.  While we must be careful not to read too much into Ham’s seeing

the nakedness of his father, and his father’s curse upon Ham’s children after he awoke from his

stupor, there seems to be a veiled reference to some questionable act on the part of Ham; the

specifics of which we can only speculate.  Suffice to say, something untoward happened as a

result of Noah’s drunkenness.  Whatever the actual facts, it is clear that, in this text, we start out

with the noblest man then alive, but end with a man who – along with his family – was brought

low by substance abuse. 

      We know what substance abuse and addiction leads to:  ruined lives; lost love; broken promises; broken relationships; tarnished trust; even questionable

behavior.  People who are bright and beautiful are left by addiction craving nothing but that which leaves them pale and sickly.  Instead of having happiness all around

them with more to look forward to, life and its dreams lie in a heap of brokenness.  Because addiction prevents a person from choosing that which is healthy, and

compels a person to select only that which deepens the disease, it leads without exception to no good.  Noah’s family was shocked and did not know how to respond

to their father’s drunkenness.  Neither do we know how to react to addiction of those we love.  That’s powerful point five.

      Sons Shem and Japheth seem to fare well in this story because they have the decency to at

least cover their father’s nakedness.  But it’s notable that, according to the author, “their faces

were turned away…”  This leads to a sixth powerful point.  On the one hand, these two dutiful

sons may have simply been trying to save their father any further embarrassment.  Then again,

maybe what they were doing is what we today call “enabling.”  Along with covering up their

father’s exposure, were they also perhaps covering up a deeper problem; even glossing over an

event within the family which was too shameful to even speak?  The lesson is that enablers are

those who make it possible – almost always inadvertently -- for another to remain addicted.  If

someone in our families is addicted to alcohol or some other substance, we do not help them by

denying it or covering it up.  Instead these actions, or lack of action, contribute to addiction by

making conditions for ongoing abuse easier.

      If Ham failed at one extreme, and Shem and Japheth failed at the other, what is the proper

response?  Perhaps the most compassionate, albeit most difficult, response is intervention. This

means confronting the person in a spirit of love and concern.  The family, with the guidance and

mediation of a trained counselor, confronts the substance abuser.  During the course of intervention, loved ones are singular in their resolve.  Instead of hitting hard

with moralizing accusations, injured family members speak the truth in love.  “It hurts me to see you doing this to yourself.” “You haven’t been there when I’ve needed

you.” “It devastates me that you choose your bottle or your needle over me.”  One by one, affected family members show how the person’s addiction has harmed

them, and they ask him or her to seek the help that is available; and to pledge themselves to walk beside them.  While in Noah’s day, there was no such concept as

intervention, such an approach may have saved his extended family generations of needless pain and suffering.

      My purpose in this message is not to preach teetotalism where alcohol is concerned, or to

discourage any use of pain-relieving drugs when needed and appropriate.  It is simply a note of

warning.  As the Apostle Paul once wrote:  “So if you think you are standing, watch out that

you do not fall.”  While we may not be called to abstinence, we are called to awareness, and to

watch for the signs.  Nor is my purpose to moralize about how wrong substance abuse is, but to

show its genesis [excuse the pun], particularly as unplanned and unexpected.  It can happen to

anyone.  Instead of judging the victims of substance abuse morally, we should do our best to be

on guard over ourselves, and those we love.  All the while, if we know someone within our

family circle or bonds of friendship who suffer from the disease, we should -- under the Lord’s

guidance – seek the courage to speak the truth in love.  Thankfully we’ve come a long way since

the days of Noah.

            O God, bless our families, our friends, our community, our society, until all bondage to substance and spirit are over.  May our release be to Your glory.  Amen.