Part 1: Preaching About Suicide and Mental Illness
One of the cornerstones of a suicide prevention program is preaching. The "power of the pulpit" grants clergy a position of moral leadership that congregants turn to for direction in their lives and beliefs about culture and society. Religious leaders are also a first point of contact when people experience mental health problems, and clergy and mental health practitioners share common goals like instilling hope, alleviating suffering, and promoting human flourishing.
Yet preaching about suicide and mental illness is not something many clergy consider, nor do they have training in it. The first time most of us tackle it is preaching at a funeral for a suicide victim. Thus we are often forced into this first-time experience during the "postvention" phase, when there isn't time to fully consider our own beliefs, assumptions, and theologies. Although religious communities have a long history of caring for people's emotional, relational, and spiritual needs, there is often not much attention on evidence-based examination. Thus, lack of study and preparation on the topic risks causing harm to those at risk, despite best intentions.
Below we have provided some biblical scriptures for the minister's consideration, followed by a few example sermons and links to outside resources. But before one dives headfirst into crafting a message, we encourage you to read the following article by our colleague Rev. Dr. Rachael Keefe, a UCC pastor and mental health advocate. We also highly recommend her book, The Lifesaving Church.
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 (Pentecost 18B) Moses desires his death. The ills of his community and the burden of his ministry are too heavy to bear. The preacher can talk about the role of society in depression and suicide, especially among caregivers. See also Jonah 3:10-4:11; Philippians 1:21-30 (Pentecost 15A); 1 Kings 19:1-4 (5-7), 8-15a (Pentecost 2C)
Psalm 22 (Pentecost 20B) “My God, why have you forsaken me?” The sense of being forsaken by God, far from being unique to Jesus and neither is it rare for the Christian, is a regular and frequent struggle for those with mental health issues. The urgent plea for God’s presence is brought forward in the psalmist’s surreal words of deep distress. According to Moltmann, this psalm is a protest in which the righteous sufferer asks God to account for the suffering. Sitting with this text can help validate those who suffer, especially as it is expressed in Jesus’ deepest moment of suffering.
Psalm 23 (Pentecost 19A; Easter4 ABC) “The darkest valley.” Naming depression and other mental illness when this familiar text is read can help remind us that God is even present in the darkness and will not abandon us.
Psalm 34:15-22 (Pentecost 13B) “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in Spirit.” A psalm of the assurance of God’s presence. We are all broken in our own ways, but God yearns to make us whole.
Psalm 40:1-11 (Epiphany 2A) “He drew me up from the desolate pit,” connects to the way people with mental illness relate to their symptoms. This is an opportunity to talk about the difference between occasional sadness and mental illness so severe we cannot pull ourselves out.
Psalm 46:1-3 (Year C Reign of Christ) “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” This psalm comes to us as a blessing when trouble comes. Sometimes trouble comes without any warning, with no way of resisting it. It is suddenly like the bottom has dropped from underneath us. This psalm assures that God comes to readily help us, that God is with us throughout our troubles, and that God is sending a River of blessing to his people. Embracing this can help us to cope.
Psalm 121 (Lent 2A, Pentecost 19C) Assurance of God’s protection.
Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 (Pentecost 7A) As with Psalm 23, this psalm serves to remind us that God is with us even in dark times, leading us through to the other side.
Psalm 139:1-6; 13-18 (Epiphany 7A; Epiphany 2B; Pentecost 13C) “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Naming examples of mental illness in a list of other characteristics that may all be a part of us can help normalize mental illness. We are not our diagnoses; we are children of God.
Lamentations 3:19-26 (Pentecost 17C); Lamentations 3:22-33 (Year B 5th Sunday after Pentecost) Stigma abounds when it comes to mental illness, resulting in fear, rejection, avoidance, and discrimination. As a result, individuals who suffer from mental health problems internalize our society’s negative beliefs and attitudes, which compounds the problem because they may try to conceal it and fail to seek treatment. These texts, taken out of their larger context, may fail to legitimize our complaints because of their hopeful aspects, yet Lamentations as a whole offers us a countercultural chance to let our laments be heard. In this book, the recognition of our trouble results in loss of control and helplessness, but if the path is walked we may also find endurance and acceptance. Suffering is all too real for those with mental illness, and the themes of alienation found in these texts give voice to their lament, and provides an opportunity for the faith community to approach them with respect and empathy, and to remind them that they still belong.
Luke 9:28-36 (37-43a) (Transfiguration Sunday Year C) After the transfiguration, Jesus goes down into the valley and heals an epileptic boy after the disciples failed. We can often fail in ministering to others by relying too much on our own strength and judgments.
Matthew 4:12-23 (Epiphany 3A) “Jesus went through Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” We often think of this text in terms of physical ailments, but this can be an opportunity to talk about addiction, suicide, and mental health sicknesses prevalent among our people in the 21st century.
Matthew 10:24-39 (Pentecost 3A) “Do not fear those who can kill the body, but fear the One who can kill both the body and the soul.”
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 (Pentecost 5A) “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.” Often when we are overwhelmed, our impulse is to fight with all the strength we can muster, and sometimes not even that suffices. Thus, we recognize our powerlessness. When that happens, Jesus tells us that’s okay, and that turning to God for comfort can heal us and make a path forward. Jesus is also called a glutton and a drunkard in this text, which can be related to the stigma towards the alcoholic or addict.
Luke 8:26-39 (Pentecost 2C) Jesus heals the demon-possessed man. Not only that, he restores him to the community. We often push aside the least of these out of our own lack of knowledge and our own discomfort – that is, stigma. Talk about how mental illness may come about from something that is unseen (perhaps an unresolved grief). Mental health issues can destroy a person especially when they suffer in isolation. See also Mark 1:21-28 (Epiphany 4A)
John 9:1-41 (Lent 4A) Jesus heals a blind man. Mental illness is not a punishment for sin. It may not be your fault, but it can be an opportunity to speak about Christ’s love. God sees you and is with you.
John 11:1-45 (Lent 5A); John 11:32-44 (Year B All Saints Day) John raises Lazarus. This story is impactful for the fact that we witness our Savior, God incarnate, experiencing emotions. Those of us who suffer the effects of mental illness can remember that Christ weeps with you. Though he knew the resurrecting work he was about to do, he sobbed with sorrow and anger anyway. Likewise, he is with you in the midst of your life.
Acts 16:16-34 (Easter 7C) Paul convinces the jailer not to commit suicide. Relate this to efforts of suicide prevention today, especially as society places so much pressure on us to succeed.
Romans 7:15-25a (Pentecost 5A) “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Paul’s words pertain well to addiction and problematic behavior, and can be related to sin generally.
Romans 8:1-11 (Pentecost 6A) “Set your minds on the things of the Spirit” provides an opportunity to say how difficult it is to control our minds, and that self-control is not the only force at work in mental health.
Romans 8:26-39 (Pentecost 8A) The Spirit cries out for us in our weakness, when we are not capable of words but only despair (v 26). He intercedes for us (v 27). Absolutely nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord. This beloved passage celebrates that God is always present and always willing to help in our hour of need.
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 (Epiphany 7A) Paul’s idea that our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. The preacher can talk about the major threats of addiction, suicide, and mental illness, statistically, to the health of my body physically and spiritually. What can I do, as a Christian, about these threats?
Ephesians 5:8-14 (Lent 4A) “Everything exposed by the light becomes visible.” Stigma often forces people who suffer from addiction and mental health issues to suffer in darkness. Sharing our struggles is essential to the healing process.
Sample Sermon: “Out of the Graveyard”
Rev. Dr. Theodore H. Colemen, Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, Marietta, GA
Pentecost 2C – Luke 8:26-39
Grace to you and peace from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Great One who comes to cast out demons and to restore us to the ways of life, to the ways of God.
The Gerasene demoniac was a man who was out of his mind. Mark tells us that the man was self-destructive. Luke simply says that his physical strength was great enough to break chains and leg shackles. He lived without clothing among the tombs. Certainly this was not normal behavior.
For the most part, people in our society do not believe in the existence of demons. That is not true in other parts of the world. There are some places in the world today where whole cultures believe in the existence of demons and evil spirits. And yet most Americans have no trouble accepting the reality of mental illness and the reality of addictions to all kinds of destructive ways of life. Alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide are all disorders or diseases that destroy the lives of many thousands of people every year. Occasionally, there is a newspaper headline that reports some episode of extremely destructive behavior. For example, a man who lives in the woods behind his mother’s house climbs into a 20 story crane in Buckhead and then hangs himself. Or, a woman drowns her five children, one of whom resists her. Such cases of human behavior the ancients probably would have described as demon-possessed. Certainly some powerful dark side force seemed to have control of these humans. They were not themselves, their friends said.
Was the Gerasene demoniac driven crazy by some great experience of death and grief? Had he buried a wife, or buried a beloved child, in this cemetery? Was that why he was still in the cemetery? Had grief simply overwhelmed him? Was that why he was living naked in the place of death?
The man lived in the cemetery. He was full of despair. Initially, he felt that Jesus also was going to punish him. “I beg you,” he said, “do not torment me.” The man apparently felt at his deepest core that God was punishing him and tormenting him with the ways of death.
Most of us would run the other way from such a person. Jesus, however, entered into the man’s death zone. Jesus entered into his agony and despair. And Jesus cast out the demonic darkness that was overwhelming him. Jesus restored the man to his right mind and to normal human behavior. The man could get dressed again.
Jesus healed the man, and the unnamed man becomes one of the first missionaries Jesus ever commissioned. He is commissioned to the task of spreading hope at home. “Go home,” said Jesus, “and tell people how much God has done for you.” And the amazing thing was that the man did.
When we work through a grief process, its denial, anger, and depression, many people often get stuck at the “if only” point. We wake up in the early morning hours thinking “if only” I had done such and such or said such and such, maybe John or Mary would not have died. It’s a human characteristic to get stuck in the past at the “if only” point. And our restless mind replays lots of “if only” scenarios regarding that tragic event. We relive the death scene over and over. Is that what happened to the Gerasene demoniac? Was that why he was living in the place of death, full of despair? Was he living out the life script of I am not okay but I can be okay if I can be strong enough? It’s plausible, isn’t it?
Arthur Gordon was born in Savannah, Georgia. Arthur did something very few of his contemporaries had ever done. Arthur won a full scholarship to Yale University. So he went to Yale and did extraordinarily well. In fact, at the end of four years, Arthur Gordon was one of 32 males in America who was awarded a Rhodes scholarship. This meant he had the paid-for opportunity to spend two years studying in England at Oxford University.
World War II broke out just after Arthur finished his studies. And because Arthur Gordon was a member of what Tom Brokaw calls the greatest generation, he went into the military and served with distinction in the Air Force.
After WWII, together with some Yale buddies, young Arthur started a magazine in New York City. But after a while, because Arthur was a better poet than a business person, the magazine failed. Not only was young Arthur out of a job, but he had personally signed notes for several thousand dollars for the business. So Arthur was out of a job and deeply in debt. And then the letter came.
It was from Arthur’s high school sweetheart back in Savannah. She had waited for Arthur to come back and marry her. She had waited while he went to Yale, went to England, went to the Warn, and then to New York City. Now, she was writing to tell Arthur that she was not waiting any longer. She had married someone else last weekend.
So in a matter of days, the whole world came crashing down on Arthur. No job, in deep debt, loved one married to someone else. This was a life crisis of the kind that Arthur Gordon had never before faced. He was a high achiever who had heard nothing but applause up to that point. He had always been the one who excelled. He had lived the workaholic script of I’m not okay, but I can be okay if I can be perfect. And now suddenly Arthur Gordon had publicly and openly failed. It was very clear that he was not perfect and that he was not okay.
I faced this kind of life crisis in my divorce. Most folks come up against big-time failure at some point in their adult journey. So, what happens next?
Arthur didn’t know what to do next. He went into a deep depression. He became immobilized. He could not get up in the morning and get dressed. Arthur began thinking about suicide.
His family rushed up to New York. And they got Arthur in touch with a wise old therapist who was a family friend.
Long story short, over many weeks, the therapist taught young Arthur how to substitute two words for “if only.” The two works were “next time.” When we learn to shift from the “if only” lament to saying “next time,” we make the great attitude adjustment. We are able to move from the great already of our lives to an open future of possibility in that part of our lives that is yet to be shaped. Arthur Gordon said this one truth of learning to say “next time” instead of “if only” was worth more to him than all the things that he had learned at Yale and Oxford.
Often the only way out of the graveyard of our failures involves learning to say “next time” instead of “if only.”
Like this miracle story, in story after story in the gospels, Jesus gave people the gift of next time.
One day Jesus was interrupted by a group of Jewish men who were demanding that w omen taken in adultery be stoned to death. What did Jesus say ought to be done to this woman, they demanded. “let the one of you who has no sin throw the first stone,” Jesus said. They got the point. And all of the men were honest enough to leave.
At that point Jesus gave the woman the gift of next time. Neither do I condemn you, said Jesus. Go, and sin no more. That is, Jesus said to the woman, I am not going to freeze you in the past for this one deed. But don’t let the pain of this moment be wasted on you. Go and sin no more. Next time, remember the past and choose differently.
This is the way out of the graveyard told to us by the Great One who knows his way out of the graveyard and the ways of death.
Christ came to lead us into life, even life abundantly. “Go home,” said Jesus, “and tell people how much God has done for you.” And he did.
Rev. Mark H. Larson, Lutheran Church of the Redeemer
August 12, 2018 – 1 Kings 19:4-8
Elijah went on a day’s journey in the wilderness and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree, and asked that he might die. There it is, right there, black and white, Elijah is suicidal. Or to put it more clinically, Elijah is expressing suicidal ideation.
And as I learned in the first day of my clinical pastoral education, when you hear somebody express the desire to harm him or herself or to harm someone else, you are required to notice, you are required to report, you are required to act. And still, I can count the times I read the passage and preached on it, and I never even noticed that Elijah is suicidal.
I think one of the many reasons for not focusing on this part of our lesson is because it doesn’t make sense. I mean Elijah should be on top of the world, he has just scored the greatest prophetic victory ever recorded in scripture. He has gone up against 400 prophets of Baal and swept the floor with them. He has proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that Elijah is the one true prophet of the one true God. You think he’d be flying high, except now he is asking God to take his life. “It is enough now, Oh Lord, take away my life.”
It just doesn’t make sense. When does suicide ever make sense? When does mental illness ever make sense? It is not a rational decision, it’s not just emotional weakness, no, it’s what the name implies, it is an illness. It is a disease. So why should we expect it to follow a rational discourse?
I think that is the reason why whenever I try to minister to somebody who is suffering from a form of mental illness, whether it be depression, bipolarism, schizophrenia, or whatever you want to label it, or whenever I am trying to comfort a family that has been devasted by the tragedy of suicide, I feel absolutely powerless.
Maybe it is because I spent so much time in my brain that I don’t know what to say. Where do you go for resources? I guess it would be easy enough to talk about it. Here is Elijah in the pain wanting to die. And for some reason even on this beautiful Sunday morning something in my heart says I just cannot let that pass.
I’m reminded of some work we did in my former congregation after a beloved member took her own life, all of us were completely devastated. We asked ourselves, where were the signs, what could we have done differently? And so we decided to act. We started off simply enough, we took a simple survey of our congregation and to our surprise, 90% of our worshipping community knew someone in their family or knew someone who knew someone who is dealing with some form of mental illness.
I suspect that the result would be similar here today if we were to take a survey. Except none of them, not one of them had ever heard the issue of mental illness brought up in the pulpit. Not one. Seemingly perpetuating a misconception that this is a subject we should not talk about in church.
Well Bishop Eaton, our presiding bishop, chimed in on our church for being silent on the issue of mental illness. She wrote there are some things we are not good at talking about. There are still some things that carry a stigma and remain hidden and suicide is one of those things. Maybe because it is frightening, unfathomable. Maybe because we are taught that it is an unforgivable sin.
Well suicide is the result of painful and persistent feelings of depression, despair and hopelessness. Often it is the final and desperate act of an individual who has come to see life as intolerable and seeks to end that pain. Here me now, it is not an unforgivable sin. We are never beyond God’s mercy and compassion. We… are never… beyond God’s mercy… and compassion.
Suicide is the tragic consequence of a mental or behavioral disorder and properly seen as a disease of the mind, a health condition. We know that suicide can be prevented through early identification of individuals at risk if they receive prompt care and treatment.
Therefore opening an honest conversation about mental illness and suicide that does not stigmatize people as well as an awareness of spiritual and psychological resources available in congregations and communities will save lives. It is time for the church to break the silence.
As always I am impressed by our presiding bishop’s ability to call our church into areas of compassion and healing among the most vulnerable and among the most in pain. And the need for such open and honest conversation is absolutely clear and urgent.
On average one person dies by suicide every 6 hours in the state of Georgia. Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in Georgia, the 3rd leading cause of death among those ages 15-24, the 2nd leading cause of death for people in Georgia for the ages 25-34. The need for intervention, for education, for advocacy is urgent.
As the body of Christ we have a unique calling and opportunity to offer hope to those parts of our body who struggle with despair and depression and to care for those families devasted by loss. One website I have found helpful is suicideispreventable.org. I’m going to throw you some resources here and I will be sending out an email this week where we have those links. Suicideispreventable.org organizes possible resources into 3 possible areas of action.
The first area which everyone needs to know, is to be able to recognize the signs that someone may be vulnerable to suicide. Whether it is behavioral changes ranging from withdrawal, anxiety, agitation, or anger through hopelessness, desperation or feelings of being trapped, ultimate to the final and most urgent warning signs of people talking about death or suicide or seeking methods of self harm. All of us need to be ready to recognize those signs among those whom we care about.
Once we recognize the signs we must be ready to start the conversation. Many of us were taught to not bring up the idea of suicide for fear of planting that idea in somebody’s head, but recent research says that is wrong, that actually asking, saying the word suicide, having the courage to speak that word and to just listen, is the one suicide prevention tool that all of us have and need. The phrase, “Are you thinking about ending your life?” is the most difficult phrase you can ever utter to a family member. But it is maybe one of the most important and life saving phrases you can ever say.
Having identified signs, having started the conversation, the good news is that you are not alone. You are not alone in helping someone in crisis. There are so many resources available to access and to treat and to intervene, crisis lines, counselors, intervention programs are more available to you than ever before as well as to people in emotional crisis.
Can I ask you to do something, I usually don’t ask you do something right now? Pull out your cell phone. Go ahead, pull it out. Make sure the ringer is off. I’m going to give you a phone number I’d like you to put in your contacts, in your phone book, just to have it available to you. The number is 1-800-715-4225. This is the Georgia Crisis and Access Line that can connect you with hundreds of resources including 911 if you are right in the middle of a crisis. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Open conversation, listening ears, awareness, reducing stigma. Something so simple can save a life.
Well look what happens to Elijah. He is sitting there alone and God sends an angel who simply gives him something to eat. So simple, a piece of bread can save a life. And it has been kind of our theme these past weeks as we talked about Jesus being the bread of life, and God’s commitment to feed God’s hungry people even in the midst of circumstances that seem impossible. This passion for God meeting the need of God’s people, epitomized and symbolized in a loaf of bread. That’s the promise.
And that’s why it is so disconcerting. It’s so simple. How can God work in such simple ways? I think that’s why people in today’s Gospel are so upset. They expect God to show up with a mighty army and God comes in person like Jesus, in absolute weakness. Where we look for God to come in power, God comes in vulnerability. And we seek God in justice and righteousness. We find God showing up in mercy and compassion.
That’s the promise that rests behind all our sacraments, in the bread, in the wine, and the water. God uses the simplest of items to feed our deepest needs. But also in the sacraments we find another promise that God not only redeems us but uses us, each one of us as fragile and as flawed and as adequate we may seem, we can be God’s angels working God’s creating and redeeming and sustaining power for all that is with simple openness, and trust each of us can save lives.
Sample Sermon: “Radical Pursuit”
Adam Renner, M.Div., St. John’s Lutheran Church, Atlanta, GA
Pentecost 14C – Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
Good morning. I am here to speak today about one of my passions, which is mental health. Because you see this month presents us with another challenging topic. September is Suicide Prevention Awareness month. I’d like us to consider our readings today from the perspective of suicide and mental health.
Now, this can be a very personal and sensitive subject for some of us, and so before we go any further I want to encourage each of you that if at any time you feel activated, please do whatever you need to take care of yourself. After worship we will have a special presentation on Suicide Prevention – and yes there will be lunch! I hope that you’ll stick around after worship and learn about the warning signs and what to do if someone you care about is suicidal.
Now you might be asking, why are we talking about this? Well to begin, it’s a major issue in our country. The amount of people who are killing themselves has grown exponentially over the last couple of decades. When suicide happens, we assume it’s about depression, and many times it is. Many of us in this room struggle and have struggled with depression. But the truth is, it can happen to anybody. Suicide can happen whenever life circumstances overwhelm our ability to cope. Think about that. Life circumstances. How many people are being squeezed by life circumstances, squeezed by inequality and poverty, loss and suffering?
Many events that can lead to a downward spiral, such as substance abuse, or the sudden death of a loved one, or trauma, or an illness, the list goes on and one. The causes really are legion, and we could do whole sermons on each topic. And the truth is, people who suicide don’t really want to die, they just want the pain to stop. Sometimes the burden can get to be so heavy that you really can’t deal with it anymore. There’s no getting away from the hopelessness and despair that you feel, no matter how hard you try.
Second, we need to talk about it because there is a stigma associated with suicide. We are quiet in the face of suicide, especially if it’s someone we know. That darkness is just too uncomfortable for many of us. So we try our best to cheer the person up, or at worst we ignore it and don’t say anything. The church too has reacted negatively in the past and has laid on its own stigma by calling suicide an unforgivable sin. I absolutely believe that this is a false doctrine that has no basis in scripture. In fact the Bible tells us that nothing in either death or life, nothing at all can ever remove us from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ. And so today we’re disarming the stigma, so that we can be better equipped to respond and to reach out.
What can we glean from our readings today about this? Let’s take a look. Luke Chapter 15 could be subheaded as “Parables of the Lost and Found.” It has been called the gospel within the gospel, the good news distilled down to its very core. The chapter contains three parables. The lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son or prodigal son. It is important to note that whenever something in the Bible is really important, it gets repeated, and there is a progression.
The great thing about Jesus’ parables is that it invites us to put ourselves into the story. Where do you imagine yourself? Are you the lost sheep? Have you ever been the lost sheep? Are you the coin, overlooked and forgotten by those around you? I think maybe most, if not all of us, can relate to being the lost one at some time in our lives.
But let’s consider just who Jesus was speaking to and why. He had been preaching and ministering to the lowest strata of society, the tax collectors and sinners. Yet the Pharisees, the so-called righteous ones, were critical of him. They criticized the fact that he hung out with these people and ate with them. So these parables, though addressed to both sinners and the Pharisees, were a response specifically to the Pharisees. So there’s your context. And the parables, initially spoken to the house of Israel, can give us grounds here in 2019 to apply it to this house of believers, to our own community. So I invite you to consider these stories from the point of view of the 99 sheep, the rest of the pocketful of coins. Let’s allow ourselves to be the Pharisees, just for a few minutes.
From their point of view, what we have here is a warning, a challenge, a wake-up call. Except that they never really caught on. I mean think about it, what responsible shepherd would leave a whole flock to go out and search for just one sheep? Don’t the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? And would the shepherd really put this vagabond sheep on his shoulders and carry it home to rejoice with friends and neighbors? Seems a bit excessive doesn’t it?
The next story about the coin builds on this. The coin is thought to be a Greek drachma, or a Roman denarius, both of very little value, at most worth a day’s wages. If indeed it was worth so little, would the woman really search her entire house in the middle of the night, using a lamp, burning expensive oil? Surely it would be best to wait until daylight. And who on earth would wake their neighbors up in the middle of the night to throw a celebration that probably would have cost a lot more than the coin to begin with?
But remember that Jesus was talking about those who the Pharisees called sinners, and they grumbled at Jesus getting along with them. It’s as if the Pharisees were saying, let them get what they deserve. These are the ones who hold up their own righteousness and holy observance, the ones who went to church, who felt justified, and they are the very same ones who distanced themselves from those who failed to be like them. These are the people of God.
I think this was the point that our Jeremiah text was getting at. Man, that text is bleak isn’t it? There seems to be nothing but God’s anger and judgment. But the judgment is not directed at the one. It’s directed at the 99. Jeremiah challenges Israel, and challenges us, to see what we do not wish to see. It challenges the self-righteousness that closes our hearts to others, which by extension closes our hearts to God. Jeremiah forces us to stare into the void and the desperation. And for those who are isolated and for whom this kind of utter hopelessness is so very real, it jolts us, and beckons us to stand in silence and listen. We are called to stand in heaven’s darkness and to hear the weeping of the earth.
Being lost is scary. Being lost is isolating. Being lost is lethal. The one sheep who wanders away is most certainly at risk of perishing. The pastoral psychologist Wayne Oates says, “Having observed many, many cases of suicide, I am singularly impressed that each person died alone. All alone.” In our society whenever we face a challenge, our cultural norms tell us that we should suck it up, keep a stiff upper lip. So we don’t feel safe to be real, to say what’s really going on. Certainly, the lost don’t want to be found sometimes, and there is a repentance. But repentance is not as much about what we do but what God does to us. We forget that sometimes. And sometimes we rationalize our way out of helping, and try to keep on feeling good about things. And we don’t let ourselves see the stark reality of the whole picture.
And yet, God’s declaration of the disaster is not the last word. The decision not to make a full end leaves open the possibility for repentance and restoration. This glimmer of hope is only possible because it is God who does not sever the relationship. God still calls us “my people.” My foolish children. Theologian Walter Brueggemann writes that prophetic discourse “is not a blueprint for the future. It is not a prediction. It is not an act of theology that seeks to scare into repentance. It is, rather, a rhetorical attempt to engage this numbed, unaware community in an imaginative embrace of what is happening.”
And so I ask this flock, what does repentance look for the 99 who “need no repentance?” The author of Timothy, speaking in the spirit of Paul, confesses his sin, but proclaims more fully God’s grace. He writes, “I was ignorant in my turning from God’s way, but God’s mercy was greater than my sin.” This is not “cheap grace,” but true grace that results in transformed lives and changed priorities. So what are our priorities?
The parables invite us to consider our part in how the lost are treated. How do we react to those who fail, or those who suffer mental illness, depression, substance abuse, and the like. What do we ascribe to them? The parables don’t say why the sheep wandered off. It doesn’t say how the coin got lost.
Instead, it only says that when the shepherd discovers that one of the sheep is missing, he goes off in search of it, and he keeps looking until it is found. No judgment, no condemnation, just restoration and reconciliation. God says the one sheep who strays is worthy of rescue. And God does not suffer the loss of a single one. He grieves that loss, anguishes over it, and does everything God can do to save it. God does not accept one loss in a hundred, or one loss in a thousand, in ten thousand, in a million, or more. God’s love is so great for us, for each one of the flock, for the whole world, that God seeks each and every one of us out. God never gives up looking for the lost. The parables reveal to us that even though we all wander, and may keep wandering, God pursues us relentlessly, and brings us home to eat at his table. And God’s joy is so great that each one of us is welcomed by the biggest, grandest party, even though it comes at a tremendous cost to God’s own self.
This love is hard for us to comprehend. We might say, no, you’ve hurt me too many times. This is not so with God. With God there is never a point where he says enough is enough, I am done with you. Even though we may reap the natural consequences of our actions and what life puts on us, God is still there in the darkness, offering mercy and love. This love is sacrificial, inefficient, and scandalous. This is the love that blesses enemies, the love that says to give your coat to someone that has stolen your shirt, this is love that turns the other cheek, love that covers all wrongdoings, love that bears all things, believes in all things, endures all things. This is the love that bestows a radical hope.
So here’s the take-home message: Which of us is not prepared to recklessly pursue the lost? Look around you. Look at these pews. Ask yourself a question. Who is missing here? Who do I know, who do I love, that is not here? Who is missing in my life? Who is lost? And what am I going to do about that?
We are called to join the shepherd in reaching out, to seek out those who have wandered, to let them know that we care about them. Not to fix their problems, not to tell them what we think they need to do, but to listen and be with them. And to let them know that they belong. If we are God’s hands and God’s feet, then the hope and love we want for others will come through us. We go in the name of God who loves us unconstrained, in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, who walked the paths we’re called to travel, loved the way we’re called to love, who is with each of us in our light and our darkness, and who has defeated death. And we go in the power of the Holy Spirit, who remains with us forever. This is the radical hope that has the power to shake the foundations of the earth, to transform our world.
So share this love not just with those who you know, but with those who make you uncomfortable, with those who stand alone. And do this not with duty or obligation, but with love and in gratitude for the grace you have received. And so Jesus asks, who will commit to this radical hope?
I want to end with this. It is said by some Bible scholars that the number one hundred is significant, in that it was recognized as symbolizing completion. There are one hundred sheep in the parable. The 99 can’t be complete until the hundredth is found. It isn’t just about the salvation of the one sheep, it’s about the salvation of the whole flock. As Richard Rohr says, history and the universe are unfolding towards completion. The new heaven and new earth involves everyone and everything. Yet we can only go after one sheep at a time. Perhaps Jesus understood that. Perhaps he knew that in simply looking for the lost, we can save the whole world.