Meadowbrook Congregational Church
To give our lives, by the Rev. Joel Boyd
Edited & formatted for publication by J. Tucker, MPH
October 17, 2021
Isaiah 53:4-6 (NRSV)1
4Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 6All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
I’m not going to preach about what you think I will this week. Or, that is, I will not preach about it in the way you may expect me to.
Earlier this past week, I received a notification on my phone. Normally, I just take a glance at things like this. Detroit Lions score. State politics updates. A note telling me that I’m almost over my data limit (hey, I’m cheap!). But this one was different. Now, I suspect that many of you received it as well. It [read]: starting Oct. 24, 2021, you must dial the area code for all calls. This change supports 988 as the new 3-digit code to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.[a]
Wow, I thought to myself. For our phones to look different each year is one thing, but here we are changing how numbers are dialed, for millions of people.
Now, some of you may think, so what? no big deal. We’ve been nearly dialing with area codes anyway, for quite some time.
But what’s so different about this is the reason for the change.
The simple fact is that suicide has grown to become such a rising problem that it is broadly considered a national public health issue.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness offers some sobering facts: suicide is the second-leading cause of death among Americans aged 10–34 and the tenth leading cause of death overall in the U.S. The overall suicide rate in the U.S. has increased by 35% since 1999, [and roughly] 46% of those who die by suicide had a diagnosed mental health condition. While nearly half of individuals who die by suicide have a diagnosed mental health condition, research shows that 90% experienced symptoms. [Just under 5%] of all adults, 18.8% of high school students, and 46.8% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual high school students have serious thoughts of suicide each year. Transgender adults are nearly twelve times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population, and suicide is the leading cause of death for people held in local jails.[Most] people may not be comfortable addressing the topic of mental health—let alone suicide—seeing it all as taboo, perhaps especially in the Church.
But you know what? It is being talked about in churches. Mainline, denominational, [and] nondenominational. Conservative. Liberal. Historic. Church plant, and anything in between. And I think that this is good; talking about it. I wish I could take credit for the saying, but someone once said to me: isn’t it funny how we avoid hard topics in church in hopes of them not impacting us, or wishing they’d go away? Isn’t the Church the very first place hard things should be discussed, with love, understanding, and courageous faith?
In our passage from the Gospel according to Mark this morning, James and John ask Jesus to do something amazing for them. They ask that he grant them to sit, one at his right hand and one at his left, in his glory (Mk 10:35-37). In response, Jesus communicates to them how while they may be able to follow in some of his footsteps, that’s not how it works in knowing where people go at the end (Mk 10:38-40). Hard as it must have been for James and John to understand, Jesus shows how God prepares that place for people. It is not for them to worry about or to work for themselves.
Of course, this whole thing makes the other disciples mad at James and John (Mk 10:41). Who did they think they were, trying to get special treatment; to take such a prominent place above everyone else?
Jesus uses this as a teaching moment, showing that while others may try to be top dog over everyone, this isn’t the way things play out for them: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43b-45).
Where James and John are too focused on their desire for stature, Jesus tells them they’re off base. He came to serve, not to be a big shot. He also came to give up his own life so that others would be forgiven and free.
And yet, true as this is, we wonder, how can it be that even though we have been forgiven, we still so often do not feel free? Strong as our faith may be in Jesus, we continue to experience life in the throes of mental illness. Why feel so incredibly bad all the time? Why have thoughts of hurting ourselves, or hurting ourselves? Why is it that even though the Son of Man has served us and freed us do we continue to fall into deep darkness, into the spiral of suicidal ideation? After, all we’re not trying to take the top spot. We may barely expect to make it beyond the halfway mark. Why would Jesus have died for our sakes when we continue to feel like dying ourselves?
And, friends, we know that this applies to folks both inside and outside the Church.
For years, people with mental illness have been marginalized and cast away, hidden out of the light of day, and locked into the darkness of night. And I’ll switch to “we” here because this issue addresses so many of us and our families. We have been treated as abnormal, as less than human, and demon-possessed. Those who have all too often taken the upper hand have not been merciful. They have not served us. They have barely attempted to understand us. Those who claim to have power and influence have kept us from being served, have tried to stamp us out, like an inconvenient insect crawling on the floor.
Friends, it has only been recently that mental illness has been approached with a broader sense of understanding and care. I once served as a music therapist at a Queens-based day treatment center for adults with developmental disabilities and mental illness. At that time, there were many sisters and brothers in the program who had come from Willowbrook State School on Staten Island. In the early 1970s, investigative reporting found scandalous problems at Willowbrook, including abuse, neglect, and overcrowding, to name a few. After leaving Willowbrook, many of my friends in music class exhibited institutionalized behaviors from their time at Willowbrook. Screaming, violent, and abusive sexual behavior were all a part of being institutionalized. I even had a friend in class who was institutionalized simply for the fact that he was blind and spoke Spanish. Friends, I wish I could tell you that such abuse of beautiful people ceased many years ago, but I know that what I just described to you was only a couple of decades ago.
Of course, I do not intend to equate developmental disability with mental illness. Nor do I mean to suggest that all mentally ill are suicidal. And I also am not suggesting that all suicide is the result of mental illness. It’s just that, while so much has been finally brought to light about development disability and mental illness, we know there’s a long way to go in understanding and blessing one another. As for suicide, however, it largely remains a heartbreaking mystery, encased in stigma, denial, and shame.
Much of these negative views take their root from perhaps well-tended people referring to the Bible. While always a great place to start, the Bible, we well know, can be read in ways that reveal the desire of the reader as opposed to the text. And so people would cite examples from the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1-17) among other cherry-picked passages to highlight a perceived condemnation from God toward those who have completed suicide. Some may say that suicide is an unforgivable sin because one cannot repent of the act.
While many of us have been led to believe certain harsh things about how the Bible addresses suicide, and I respect the diversity of thought, it may come as a bit of a surprise to see what careful, self-exploration of scripture may yield on the traumatizing, heartbreaking problem of suicide.
In a 2005 study [titled] Suicides and suicide ideation in the Bible, [German psychiatrist Horst J.] Koch, M.D., Ph.D., M.F.P.M., D.C.P.S.A., shows how he aimed to “summarize all data on suicidal behavior reported in the Bible and to discuss basic implications for medical ethical positions. All books of the Jerusalem Bible, including the Apocrypha, accepted in the Catholic canon, were searched for all cases of suicide, attempted suicide, and suicidal ideation clearly identifiable as such. The Bible including the Apocrypha reports about 10 completed suicides and 11 cases of suicide attempts or ideation. The Bible considers human life as a divine gift but suicide per se is neither condemned nor approved. Those suffering from suicidal thoughts are treated with respect and support is offered. Theological teaching on suicide was influenced for centuries by the biased negative opinion of the early fathers of the church and scholastic savants, but these opinions are not substantiated by a thorough reading of the Bible.”2
Writing in Christianity Today [in 2000], Lewis Smedes, B.D., Th.D., offered the following: “the Bible does not seem to condemn suicide. There are, I think, six accounts of suicide in the Bible, the most notorious being those of King Saul (1 Samuel 31:2-5) and Judas (Matthew 27:3-5). Others are Abimelech (Judges 9:50-54), Samson (Judges 16:23-31), Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23), and Zimri (1 Kings 16:15-20). As far as I can tell, none of the six is explicitly condemned for taking his life. Some say that suicide cannot be forgiven because the person who did it could not have repented to doing it. But all of us commit sins that we are too spiritually cloddish to recognize for the sins they are. And we all die with sins not named and repented of.”
Aside from the inspiration from the scripture text, my phone notification, our stewardship theme, Together in Jesus, and September being Suicide Prevention Month, I should share my own experience with suicide. There has been a suicide in my own family. When I was a boy, my best friend’s dad committed suicide. Years later, as young adults, that friend committed suicide. Now, maybe you have stories of your own, or even stirrings or struggle in your own heart. Friends, there is hope.
Sisters and brothers, neither you, nor I, nor anyone make nor is making the case that suicide is good. No one would suggest such a thing and the pain and trauma it brings to those who remain behind. Suicide is a horrific and dreadful thing. And yet, friends…and yet, it is a thing, for now, at least. And we know it has been around for thousands of years. Rather than condone, dismiss, or deny its existence, it is my prayer that we walk side by side together, as we seek love and understanding. I pray that the acknowledgment of God’s ever-present, undeterred blessing be upon any who suffer from suicide, attempts, or ideation, including the family and friends who surround us.
Though James and John are bent on claiming their spot in the good seats, Jesus reminds them and us that we are not called to seek good for ourselves but rather to do good and be good for others. For Jesus is that Son of Man who gave his life as a ransom for the many. And we, through all our challenges, are the many. And for all these painful challenges, we have the words which [the author of the epistle] gave us in Romans 8:38-39: “for I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Thank you, Jesus. For we are all together in you. AMEN.
- Society of Biblical Literature. The HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised & Updated. (Meeks WA, Bassler JM, Lemke W, Niditch S, Schuller E, Attridge HW, eds.). HarperCollins; 2006.
- Koch H. Suicides and suicide ideation in the Bible: an empirical survey. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. 2005;112(3):167-172. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0447.2005.00567.x