Luke 18:9-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
There was a very lost, wicked, rebellious man who decided it would be good for business if he went down to the church and joined it. He was an adulterer, an alcoholic, and had never been a member of a church in his life.
But when he went down to the altar to join the church, he gave public testimony to the church that there was no sin in his life, and that he had grown up in the church, and they readily accepted him as a member.
When he went home he told his wife what he had done, and his wife, a very godly lady, exploded. She excoriated him for being such a hypocrite, and demanded that he go back to the church the next week and confess what he really was. Well, God used his wife to really break him, and he took it to heart.
The next Sunday he went back to the church, walked down to the front again, and this time confessed to the church all of his sins. He told them he was dishonest, an alcoholic, an adulterer, and he was sorry. They revoked his membership on the spot. He walked out of the church that day scratching his head and muttered to himself: “These church folks are really strange. I told a lie and they took me in; and when I told the truth they kicked me out!”
Jesus told a story of two men in a similar situation who had totally different results. One tried to talk himself into God’s kingdom, but didn’t make it. The other tried to talk himself out of God’s kingdom and he did make it.
Jesus spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.
Every one of us will find ourselves somewhere in this story. Because at one time or another all of us are guilty of trying to impresses God. Are we still caught by surprise at what does impress God, and what doesn’t. (sermons.com)
This is as far as I got on this week’s sermon when I felt called to moved away from the direction of the lectionary and to talk about suicide. This too may catch us by surprise at what does impresses God and what doesn’t. This is a topic I have been wanting to preach on for some time, but timing really never seemed appropriate. Wait until Lent, I thought, but chances are pretty good that I won’t be around at that time. One of the reasons to talk about this now is the fact that holidays are right around the corner and these are often difficult, lonely, and dark times for many people. We try to show a cheerful, perfect side when we are feeling anything but cheerful and definitely less than perfect. Why are we so stuck on not showing who we are or sharing how we are feeling? God loves us just as we are. That is not a question but a statement of faith.
Suicide, a tough topic. My reason for preaching this sermon today, is not to give a green light to suicide, but to recognize that the stigma of suicide is more human-made than God-made.
Emily Munger asks: “Suicide. Is there anything in the human experience more difficult to discuss than when a loved one completes suicide?” (Emily Munger, God’s Extravagant Love: Suicide, Reconciliation, and Releasing Shame; April 2, 2019)
No wonder we wrestle with preaching on this topic, but the church and ministers have been remiss in doing so. Topics like mental illness and suicide need to be brought into the light of day. In fact, in the light of God’s love that shines on all of God’s children.
We remember the shocking news in 2014 that Robin Williams died by suicide. The deep emotional pain Robin suffered was often well-hidden behind his brilliant and creative humor.
I was also reminded of the first person I provided pastoral care to early on in my ministry who died by suicide, Stella. We talked about why she wanted to end her life – she felt the divorce she did not want, had her end up in a small apartment that she hated. Prior to divorce she lived a life of high status in a beautiful, well-attended home. The divorce certainly made her living situation much more humble in its scope and she saw this as demeaning and that she was a loser. Through life circumstances she hated her life. Several months after many conversations, we learned at the church that Stella had completed suicide.
Another thing we don’t talk about in church is the fact that clergy also wrestled with mental health issues and also think of suicide and some actually do take their own lives. Dedicating one’s life to the church, to ministry, to God, does not make us immune to the deep wrestling the rest of the world struggles with. Mental illness impacts the life of every person I know. Churches need to be places of safety and community for those wrestling with any issue – especially those involving mental health.
This is a complex and difficult issue. I think what is needed in our conversation about taking one’s life, (either via euthanasia or suicide) is talking about religion and what scripture tells us about this particular act.
Frankly, the suicide I am most familiar with in scripture is that of Judas Iscariot who took his own life after he realized how he betrayed Jesus and how that betrayal led to Jesus’ death. It is important for us to note that there is nowhere in scripture that claims that suicide is sinful or that God will love us less if we take our own life. That thought of shame and punishment and damnation came up through the early church and is still making an impact on our lives today.
My own thoughts about suicide have evolved through my lifetime. I stopped buying into the punishment and damnation focus of my Roman Catholic teaching that suicide was a mortal sin and only let to an eternity in hell. Those individuals were buried outside of the sacred grounds of a cemetery because of suicide. As I grew in my understanding of God’s ongoing love my heart also grew to ache for all involved.
Ed Stetzer reminds us that “the church is for the broken. A church without the broken is a broken church.” (Christianity Today, 8/3/18) Church is a place to be who we are and to work on the wellness of our soul – of our being – of our brokenness.
Sometimes we’ve forgotten that.
I find I have much more compassion for the individual and especially for the family who are wrestling with a myriad of questions and emotions like anger, blame, shame. And we are reminded in Psalm 147:3 that “God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” I think this psalmist knew the deep pain of life, as well as the joys.
And as a pastor who has wrestled with bad things happening to good and decent people, I think it is important for me to share with you that I do not believe that suicide is a pre-determined act of God, and neither do I believe that God has rejected any individual who has taken this path. I believe every soul is cradled in God’s love.
In Emily Munger’s article she shares the story of Rev. Keith Kraft whose youngest son, Ben, (who was headed to seminary) completed suicide. No obvious warning signs, just a knock on their door in the early morning one horrific day. Keith wrote reflections of his darkest journey in life in Pain Seeking Understanding. This book offers a look at hope beyond this particularly difficult kind of grief. His story is important for the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons, family and friends who have lost a loved one via suicide. He wrote: What a God! Caring more about loving us than what we’ve done to not deserve that love. I believe and trust that God was present with Ben when he was experiencing those ‘dark places.’ I believe and trust that there is not a place that we can go, physically or mentally, that God is not present with us.”
Munger wrote: “The truth is, we can never fully understand suicide, but we can challenge our assumptions that suicide is selfish by taking a closer look at the untreated mental illness living in the shadows of our friends and family members. And we can tell them exactly how loved they are. And we can hold out hope that one day, those experiencing deepest darkness might begin to see the light of God’s mercy and extravagant love. We are all the beloved.
At funerals and memorial services I find Paul’s words to the Romans comforting: “Who, then, can separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble do it, or hardship or persecution or hunger or poverty or danger or death? . . . No, in all these things we have complete victory through him who loved us! For I am certain that nothing can separate us from his love: neither death, nor life, neither angels, nor other heavenly rulers or powers, neither present nor the future, neither the world above nor the world below – there is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Powerful words – powerful promises – nothing in life or in death, nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God. Nothing! Not one thing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing. Nothing that we do or say. Nothing can ever stop God from loving us. Nothing. And to that love, we entrust everyone wrestling with the dark night of the soul. And to that love, we also entrust ourselves. In confident trust of God’s mercy and with dependence upon God’s care, we give ourselves to that great and gracious and extravagant love of God.
As we closed this morning we return to meet the two characters of Jesus’ parable – the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The reality is that God loves them both, as God loves us. God’s love knows no bounds. Thank God! Amen.