But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It was 2003 and I was a freshman in High School. And like most High School freshman, I spent many an evening on my computer typing to my friends on Instant Messenger. This was long before Facebook’s wild popularity, Twitter’s terse communication style was far away from coming into reality, and none of us even had cameras on our cell phones. But night after night we would sit in front of our computer screens typing away about what we thought were the most important things in the entire world.
One night in the spring, I waited for my parents to go to bed and then I snuck downstairs to get back on the computer. Most of the conversations were frivolous and limited by the speed at which our fingers could move over the keyboard. I can’t remember what the topic was that evening, but I do remember a new box appearing on the screen that changed everything.
At the time, my best friend was dating a girl and things were less than perfect. They fought about all kinds of stupid things and were the epitome of every high school relationship cliché. She, the girlfriend, was the one who sent me a message that night. All it said was, “We got in a really bad fight, he told me he was going to kill himself, and I don’t know what to do.”
Suicide is ugly. It leaves families and friends reeling in whiplash, it creates guilt and unanswered questions, and it produces feelings of morbidity and fear.
Suicide is controversial in the church for a number of reasons. Many churches and Christians believe that suicide is ultimately sinful and worthy of eternal damnation. To have suicidal thoughts is to not have enough faith. Some pastors will even refuse to preside over funerals for those who have committed suicide.
If you look through the entirety of scripture, both Old and New Testaments, you will not find a passage that condemns suicide. None of the prophets, or priests, or kings have anything to say about suicide or what happens to those who commit suicide. However, Augustine (an important theologian from the early church) read the commandment “thou shall not kill” as a prohibition against suicide. And from Augustine’s reflection on the topic, suicide became the black sheep of sins in the church.
For a thousand years, suicide was a mortal sin and an affront against God’s goodness. Those who committed suicide were treated as criminals and refused Christian burials. By the 1500s those who attempted suicide were excommunicated by the church and were punished by the civil authorities.
And still today, suicide carries an awful stigma in the realm of the church and is one that is either referred to with eternal damnation or complete silence.
That silence, the utter and complete darkness of a topic that is remarkably relevant for our time and reflection, is a controversy worth confronting.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), on average, one person dies by suicide in the state of Virginia every 8 hours. It is the 11th leading cause of death in our state, and it is the 2nd leading cause of death for people ages 10-34.
Among high school students across the country, 17% seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months. And 8% attempted suicide one or more times in the last year.
If you’re like me, you tend to think about young people being the most susceptible to suicide attempts, but suicide rates are actually highest among people middle aged and older, by a lot. In fact, middle aged and older adults are nearly twice as likely to commit suicide as young people.
And right now, suicide has surged to its highest levels in thirty years.
When I received that message on my computer back at the beginning of high school, I grabbed my things and was out the door before I even had a chance to really think about what I was doing. All I knew was that my friend would not just make an empty threat about suicide like that, and I had to do something about it. So I grabbed my bicycle out of the garage and I started riding as fast as I possibly could in the middle of the night. He lived a couple miles away and when I screeched into his driveway I was drenched in sweat.
I dumped the bike right there and I ran to the front door and started banging with my fist and I started yelling. Within a minute his parents were coming down the stairs in their pajamas with tired and angry looks on their faces. When they opened the door and saw me standing and sweating in the dark they were utterly bewildered and then I told them why I was there.
We immediately went to check on him in his bedroom, but he wasn’t there. We searched the house from top to bottom and we finally found him in the basement. He was sitting on the couch with tears in his eyes and he had just swallowed an entire bottle of ibuprofen.
They wound up taking him to the hospital and had his stomach pumped. They sat there and held their son while he cried and cried. And they saved his life.
Suicide is not the way any human life should end. The church, this church, has an obligation to see that all persons are grafted into a community of love and are cared for in the midst of isolation, depression, and despair.
Life is a gift, plain and simple. It is a gift from God and therefore we are called to be good stewards of this gift: our lives and the lives of others.
We cannot ignore this topic as if it has nothing to do with us. The statistics confront us with a stark reality about the prevalence of suicide in our culture. With the advent of the Internet and instant communication, young people are being bullied and attacked at a degree that few of us can even fathom. With an economy that moves up and down like a roller coaster, people in the middle of life are undergoing identity crises and are wondering how they can provide for their families. Older people who receive a grim diagnosis or the loss of a spouse struggle to justify living with such a horrible outlook for the days ahead.
We know that we are supposed to be present for and with one another, like being there for friends and family at a moment of tragedy. We rarely know what to say on such occasions, but we know we should be there. We, above all things, are called to be present for others in the midst of suffering and loneliness and depression that often lead to the contemplation of suicide. To be part of the faithful community requires us to be for one another.
We live because life is a gift. We are not our own creators. We Christians are the people who must learn to live by the fact that life is a gift. We therefore can live each and every day not as a survival technique, but through recognizing that each and every day is an opportunity to live and love in the service of our Lord.
When we talk about suicide, we say it is “the taking of one’s life.” But even the way we talk about suicide shows how much a problem we have with it. Our lives are not our own. As the Lord says through the Prophet Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine.” We belong to the Lord and to one another. God tells us to not be afraid because God will be with us as we pass through the waters, and the rivers of life shall not overwhelm us, we shall not be burned by the fires of frustration. Not because they won’t hurt or be terrifying, but because we belong to the Lord and the Lord is with us.
If we’re here in the sanctuary this morning, we have some sense of this in our lives. We know that God is with us, we feel God’s presence in this place and we know that we are not alone. It is through encountering the divine love of God in worship that we are given the strength to be God’s presence for others who sink under the waters of life and who feel burned by the world. It is our charge to be shaped and called by God’s love and to reach out to those who contemplate ending their days. We have the challenge of showing all people, even those who see no value to their lives, how our lives are not defined by what we have done with them, but by what God will do with them.
Six months after my friend had his stomach pumped, he attempted to commit suicide again. This time he did it with a hose running from his exhaust pipe into his car. But his little brother heard the car door close and it woke him up, and then he woke up his parents. In the strange and quiet time of the darkness of night they pulled their son out of the car and they got him help. It took a long time for him to move on. It took counselors and therapists, it took friends and family, it took the power of God’s grace to show him that his life could get better, that there was hope for the future, that there was something worth living for. And because people in his life were brave enough to confront his suicide attempts, he still lives today.
But there will always be some that we cannot reach. There will be people who feel so suffocated by the weight of the world that they will make that dreadful decision to end the life that God’s has given to them. And for them, for those who will die by their own hand, what will happen to them? For centuries the church saw suicide as an unpardonable sin, something that eternally damns those who do it. Will God abandon them for making such a choice? Will God refuse to love the people who felt no love in their lives? Will the God of mercy punish them until the end of time?
No. In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.