Sermon on Suicide, Caesar, and Beautiful Newborns

By Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589) ("Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum") [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589) (“Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Yesterday I had the honor of holding little Imogen, our newest housemate, just one day old. All four of the Eakins were laying in bed and I leaned over and said a blessing over the new baby. And I couldn’t help but think of our text for today when Jesus is asked if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. And no, not because now with an extra dependent the Eakins will get a tax break.

I thought of the famous render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s text while blessing a newborn name Imogen not because I care much about the issue of taxes or currency, but because of what Jesus says after that. He asks what image does the coin bear that they are carrying in their pocket, and they said “Caesar” and he says then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s…but then he adds…but give to God what is God’s. And to the original hearers, some pretty loud bells would be going off when Jesus started talking about God and bearing an image. These people knew their scriptures. When they heard image bearing and God it brought to mind a few amazing verse from Genesis

Gen 1: “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;. . . . So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, he created them;

male and female God created them.”

And in Gen 5 “When God created humankind, God made them in the likeness of God.”
And in Gen 9 “. . . for in God’s own image God made humankind.

One of the wonders of birth is that we get to be in the presence of a human being who had most recently come from God – that we get to hold a fragile little miracle that so freshly bears the Imago Dei, the very image of God.

I thought of that as I held Imogen- with a name like that, how could I not? And then I couldn’t help but reflect on how if it is a thing of wonder to hold a newborn that bears the image of God, then it is at least equally as painful when one of God’s children chooses to end their own life. An unspeakably tragic thing that we also experienced in this church this week. One family had a baby and another family had their husband and father die. An image-bearing child of God – gone. Just like that.

I don’t know many people who are unaffected on a personal level by suicide. And as the preacher for this community, I was faced with again having to make sense of all of this like I have so many other times in my life and frankly, I’m not sure I can.

After one of you recently asked me for help because you had to preach at the funeral of a friend who had committed suicide, I gave you some stuff I’d written about my friend PJ’s death and also a sermon I preached at the funeral of Billy last Spring. Billy wasn’t a member here, but he could have been. He was queer and creative and funny and prone to depression so would have fit in perfectly.

Last Spring when I met with Billy’s grieving family, I listened and asked questions and told them about my friend PJ who had committed suicide, because I wanted them to know something: that if love alone could have kept PJ alive, he would still be here.

Love is strong, but unlike what Hallmark tells us, human love is always imperfect and it actually can’t do everything.

I know what it’s like to think “I should have returned his last voice mail” or “I should have checked in on him more” or “I should have had more patience with him,” but I also know that’s not how it works. We are left with only what is left: our own exquisite longing for things to have been different and for those we love not to have been in pain, and, mostly, to have remained with us. I remember how angry I was at P.J., how tenderness accompanied that anger, and how certain I was, in the middle of my tender anger, that God could somehow hold all of our inconsistencies, including PJ’s terminal ones.

People are cynical about religion, and about Christianity especially. I know this. And I understand. I can be cynical about it myself. Every time I see some smiley TV preacher talk about God’s plan for me or hear Sara Palin say something irretrievably mean and stupid about poor people, every time I pass an embarrassing billboard featuring Jesus and a fetus, I totally get why reasonable people steer clear.

But there is also good – or else we’d not be here. And I think one of the most powerful concepts in the Judeo-Christian tradition is that we are, every one of us, created in God’s image. We are image bearers of the divine.

And one of the amazing things about newborns like Imogen is that the image of God so real and so pure in them.

But we live in a fallen, imperfect world, so we soon suffer the accumulated layers of pain and loss and whole lot of other things that can make God’s light within us seems darkened – the sound of our true name seemingly lost in the noise of competing labels, the image of God barely perceptible amongst the accumulated layers of damage and protection, damage and protection.

We end up doing this to each other, too – it’s so much easier to see someone as my enemy or as “the other” If I conveniently ignore that they too bear the image of God. Trust me, I got my share of hate this week from Internet commenters and not once did I think “that is someone created in the image of God”

And perhaps hardest to bear is the ways in which we can diminish ourselves when we can’t feel anything but the massive distance between our ideal self and our actual self. It is then that we place our value in something other than being created in God’s own image. Effectively rendering to Caesar what is God’s.

Maybe this happens to everyone on some level. But what there are no easy answers to is why for some, there becomes so many layers of mental illness and deep darkness that the divine image so clear and present the day of their birth becomes so buried that they cannot stay with us anymore. I don’t know that the church has an answer for that, but I do know for sure that the church is not supposed to make the situation worse by saying stupid things.

Because, if someone you love suffers from mental illness and addiction and maybe could not see God’s image in themself, if the voices of self-hate and depression and despair drown out the sound of God’s promises and they take their own life, then that is devastating and unspeakably excruciating enough. So if you then have to navigate some kind of complete bullshit about their soul going to hell because the church, the institution that was supposed to assure you of God’s love and relationship to you instead filled your head with nonsense like how victims of suicide go to hell, then I am so sorry. They aren’t in hell. They were in Hell. And I am not going to insult any of you by offering an explanation or platitude about any of it. But there is one thing I am sure of: the imago dei – the image of God that God has placed in every human soul, can not be diminished or damaged – even by the church.

Call it the soul, or the essence, but the image of God, the imago dei that is within you and me and Bo and Imogene and Billy and PJ and even hateful homophobic internet trolls carries with it a divine dignity which cannot be touched. No matter what, no matter the completing voices or violence or low-self-esteem or anger that comes from a world that simply does not know how to love perfectly. Depression and loss and addiction might create pain and that pain is real. But how good is God that God has protected in you a thing that can never be harmed. And you carry within you the light of God, the Imago Dei – the image of the one who created you and here’s the thing: that and only that is the true source of your value and identity. And no matter the sin and harm done to you by others or done to you by yourself, or that you have degraded your self by doing to others, none of it can get to that part of you which is holy. Because some things are so holy that they simply cannot be desecrated. So I believe with all my being that those who leave this world, even by their own hand, are held in the same pure love of God from which they were born. If they could not feel the truth of God’s love in life, they are surrounded by it in the life everlasting.

Let us pray,

God whose image we bear,

Through your grace, we beg you to cut through the accumulated layers of garbage that insulate us from the truth of your love.

Amen

 

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Cullen

    Love isn’t perfect when used by humanity. However, I believe that pure love *is* perfect because *God* is love(1 John4:8). Humanity will corrupt this pure love, no doubt.—

  • Laura Weber

    I wanted to post here, to share my story. But I am afraid there are so many stories to share by myself and by others, that they would pile up to the ceiling and up over the hills and into the sky. I want to share that my housemate lost a newborn in April, that I have struggled with mental illness my whole life, that I have been on that edge between survival and ultimate self destruction. This sermon had me in tears remembering holding that newborn and seeing that Imago Dei in his little face (although I didn’t have words for that at the time), I remember the people I have lost to suicide, and my own misadventures in losing sight of God. I posted a simple thank you on Facebook, but i had to share a little more here. Thank you.

  • George Barcus

    For some reason the other day, as I was out on my morning walk I began thinking of Judas, or actually Jesus’ comment in Mark 14:21, “…But how terrible it would be for the one who betrays him. it would be far better for that man if he had not been born!”(NLT) I believe that Jesus knew the anguish Judas would experience and his inability to reconcile his deeds to such a point of despair that Judas would take his life. While I have not figured out exactly how to put my thoughts fully into words as this is a new depth of thinking for me, I feel that in creating humans in the Imago Dei, saying, as God looks at all that was created that it is ‘very good’ (Gen 1:31), Judas’ anguish was more than the human being was created for. The experience so deep that the only option in the person’s mind is to end their life, for a human to be so blind to the good within, to be in such despair as to have the mental faculties overloaded with such a heavy burden, it would have been better for the one suffering so profusely to have never been born.

    • David Zirilli

      Thank you for this.

  • Guest

    A slightly different perspective: but positive none the less… http://www.elephantjournal.com/2014/10/the-upside-to-committing-suicide/

    • Worthless Beast

      Urgh, I had to sign in in God knows how long…

      I read the above article. I didn’t want to respond to it directly because I’ve never been to the Elephant Journal before, but upon reading your link, I think the “positive perspective” author is a moron.

      She writes like someone who is theorizing about suicide without ever being touched by it.

      I’m bipolar, I have struggled with thoughts of ending my own life at intervals for years. I made an attempt once.

      It’s nothing like what the Elephant-writer says of it. I don’t feel AT ALL like a person making ready for some great journey that I don’t want interrupted. I’m not standing at the train station. Instead, it’s more like my Depression is a person with sharp weapons and a snarling dog trying to herd me into a cattle-car. I say “I want to live, I do think I have something to contribute to the world” and the depression shoots back that I’m worthless, all my efforts are worthless, not good enough and that even being *near* the train means I need to get on it and leave all the normals to their world-more-perfect-without me.

      In the last year, I’ve made a good online friend who lost a little sister to suicide, and let me tell you, the pain I listen to, the scars on the heart…

      And HERE’S THIS IDIOT writing on some yoga journal about it being a journey no one should even bother to try to talk anybody out of and seems to practically want all those Suicide Booths from Futurama on every street-corner to come true.

      Aren’t human lives worth FIGHTING for?

      Currently, what is keeping me alive and warm is anger enough to fight, to beat back my lying depression. The world at large makes it hard enough without twit-brains on “positive living” sites trying to get society to encourage it. Maybe this life does come with choices, including stopping one’s own life, but too many people find stopping others’ lives a valid choice, too… including the slow path ways because it is more acceptable to drive someone to the margins to the point where suicide looks like the only way out than to do outright murder.

      Nadia’s article above? Actually positive and helpful to me, thanks. What you linked? I want to hurt the author.

      • Guest

        Thank you for taking the time to respond. I hope you succeed in your battle with depression and triumph over the lies it hurls at you.
        I have struggled with this as well for many years-every waking thought on death and it’s release or consequence. Filled with fear until paralyzed from any participation from life at all. Which is not living. Everyday wondering if this would be the day. This article was the first time I could pierce through that veil and Nadia’s offers a continued beacon of hope. For me the removal of the threat of disappointment or punishment if I make the wrong choice has freed me from having to choose at all. To know that there are others that share the hope of ultimate reconciliation allow me to survive the hells here and now. I am sorry if my post gave you any increased pain. It was not my intention and I pray that you find peace. Nadia may remove it she feels it is distracting to her message of God’s ultimate love and reconciliation.

        • Worthless Beast

          I believe in ultimate reconciliation, the problem I had with the linked article is this idea of… flippance… regarding suicide, like it’s a decision we “must” respect the same way as a choice of coffee at the Dunkin’ Donuts. I don’t have to respect a decision in order to respect a person or their memory. I reserve to write to call horrible decisions horrible decisions.

          My attempt? It was a bad decision. To have people “respect” it and act like I should have been left alone to it rather than got help would be the OPPOSITE of respecting myself. If someone finds me in that position again, I DO want them to stop me, because it means that, to them, my life is worth fighting for. To say that society should develop an “Oh, well, it’s like any other form of death, let’s leave it alone” attitude strikes me as the OPPOSITE of respecting the people involved. Or their loved ones. (I’d say some exceptions apply, like if a self-sacrifice actually saves others or something like that), but for new age hippies to essentially go “Oh, someone’s depressed and too depressing to talk to for me to even help them, let’s build suicide booths!” “Or let’s wave to them as they go on their journey” just… ugh. No. If you love me, you will try to save me.

          • summers-lad

            What you have said is truly moving and powerful. I’m sure your words will do good. Keep on fighting.

  • Tim Sams

    Thank you so much Nadia. Damn this stuff matters.

  • Sherry

    Thank you Nadia. I saw the video of people in your church and shared it with a friend. I’m so glad it brought me to you. I will listen and read your message several more times as it’s too much to digest all at once. Challenging for sure! Thank you so much.

  • Charlie

    Nadia … You’re like a crack dealer that got me hooked because you gave the purest stuff at the beginning … I’ve read, listened to, and poured over all your sermons at least two or three times, but I need more … It’s like I’ve sucked the cigarette butts dry … More, and more often, please … ‘Yes, I’m a dog … So, give up the goods already’ … Charlie (a Baptist p k who survived the glass house) …peace …

  • Katie Justice

    Nadia… All I can say is thank you from the bottom of my heart. Reading this gives me hope. Having lost a mother to suicide after struggling with Bipolar for years and struggling with depression and attempting suicide a few months ago, these are the words I needed to hear. Because of people like you who have a caring and understanding heart, you give people like me hope. Thank you again.

  • Gerardo Noriega

    Hi, Nadia, it is great that now we can listen to and read you at the same time with this new format that doesn’t need that a second window be opened. I am always moved by your sermons and this one about suicide is not an exception. Thank you for sharing. Greetings from Mexico!

  • Gary Roth

    Always good, Nadia! Important thought, that I hadn’t really pondered before, that you touched on – how we give up on the image of God, and so give ourselves to the image of Caesar. If we give up on being the image of God, or deny that possibility in ourselves, what is left, but to place upon ourselves Caesar’s image, that is, to simply accept the culture and its norms. In this passage, that seems to be the salient point, isn’t it? Those standing around him know that they were created in God’s image; but that isn’t how they are acting – not where their hearts are. Here is God’s gift before them; here is God’s kingdom present. But they represent a different kingdom; they have given themselves to a different allegiance, and have stamped a different image upon themselves. I’m sorry for the loss in your community; I celebrate with you also the new life in your community, and in your life. Best wishes always.

  • I’ll bet you’re right about bells going off.

    “Is it lawful to pay Caesar’s tax? Should we pay or should we not?” (Mark 12)

    “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” (Psalm 24;1)

    What remains give Caesar, in other words, nothing.

    When Jesus said, “Give Caesar what is Caesar’s,” (Matt. 22, Mark 12, Luke 20) he meant precisely what he said. He chose his word carefully because he knew the question was meant to “trap him in speech so as to hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.” (Luke 20) If Jesus believed paying Caesar’s tax was justified, he could have said so, and Pilate probably would have given him a good citizen award. If he said, as he believed and as his enemies knew he believed by his past words and conduct, that Caesar’s tax amounted to extortion and should be avoided by all means short of dishonesty or violence and he said so, he would have been tricked and made the fool by his dishonest adversaries and caught in their venal trap. But Jesus couldn’t and wouldn’t lie. So he told them give what ever you have belonging to Caesar back to him, and by obvious inference, otherwise keep what is your own. No one in Palestine had anything in their possession belonging to Caesar. The coin in question belonged to the person who produced it at Jesus’ behest. The true brilliance of Jesus’ response is that he responded exactly as they hoped he would, but in such a way that he completely bamboozled them, leaving them befuddled and amazed.

    • summers-lad

      Ned
      I agree with you about the brilliance of Jesus’ answer, but “keep what is your own” doesn’t come into it.

  • One other thing, about images. It was one of his enemies who produced the coin with its graven image and in the Temple precincts no less, thus convicting the bearer of the coin of blasphemy. (See Exodus 20)

  • The Teaching Principal

    I just listened to your sermon on suicide and the image of God. Thank you for the reminder that we are all born in the image of God. That God created Adam and Eve in that image. Even though sin has separated us from God, God has not separated HImself from us. A good friend, former student committed suicide due to his homosexual tendencies (his words not mine). I was devastated as I found out about it on Facebook, the day he took his own life. I have had many talks and have gone back to MN to visit with his Mom and Dad and to talk about Billy.

    I do have one question for you, however, about being in the “image of God.” In your sermon, you said, “… every time I pass an embarrassing billboard featuring Jesus and a fetus, I totally get why reasonable people steer clear.” I am assuming that you are pro-choice by this statement. If you are not then what I have to say does not matter. If the child, the fetus, is in the image of God, then how dare Christians approve of abortions? Is not abortion killing, murdering, one of God’s children in whose image that child was conceived? You go on to say, “But there is also good – or else we’d not be here. And I think one of the most powerful concepts in the Judeo-Christian tradition is that we are, every one of us, created in God’s image. We are image bearers of the divine.” If we are not created in the image of God at conception, then when do we take on that image?

    Thanks for reading this,

    Dave

    • Dave, I do not presume to answer on Nadia’s behalf, but I knew somebody was going to ask that question (re: abortion) and I would like to respond. There are a couple of issues here. First, does the “image of God” refer merely to DNA, i.e. strands of protein? or, a recognizably human face? or does it refer to consciousness, the soul, which the Jews believed was imparted with the first breath? More importantly, if DNA alone is our criterion, so that a fertilized egg bears “the image,” then we are faced with the very difficult question of why God aborts around 80% of them.

      • The Teaching Principal

        Jamie, first let’s get the facts correct. According to American Pregnancy Organization, “10-25% of all clinically recognized pregnancies will end in miscarriage.” Quote is from their website.

        Second, God does not abort in the case of a miscarriage. Once again from the article: “The reason for miscarriage is varied, and most often the cause cannot be identified. During the first trimester, the most common cause of miscarriage is chromosomal abnormality – meaning that something is not correct with the baby’s chromosomes. Most chromosomal abnormalities are the cause of a damaged egg or sperm cell, or are due to a problem at the time that the zygote went through the division process.

        Third, when do we bear the “image of God”? I believe that when the sperm unites with egg, human life begins. It is at that moment that the “image of God” is implanted on that child.

        I believe I have a child in heaven, I know that I have a child in heaven. My child died as a result of a miscarriage during the second month of the pregnancy. At the once year anniversary of the miscarriage, I mentioned to my pastor that my child has been in heaven for one year. (My wife and I moved with a job change, so I was in a new church by this time.) He replied you mean when your wife had the miscarriage. When I replied, “yes,” he responded with a snicker and said globs of cells do not go to heaven. It was at that point I lost respect for the man. This was 27 years ago. Each October 26, I remember my child, who one day I will finally meet in heaven.

    • lilycarol

      From my experience, I had one pregnancy that exacerbated a tendency to depression and anxiety that lasted beyond the postpartum period. That was 45 years ago and my daughter is well. I had 2 abortions after that (one pregnancy was with an IUD in place). I had 2 losses of wanted children after those. I felt a lot of grief about the abortions, but I had to save my life for the sake of my living child and myself. I would have killed myself otherwise. There was little help for depression then but I’m on meds now, and I love and forgive my younger self. God is taking care of all my children, whether there are 3 of them or 5.

  • marty_jones

    I also don’t speak on Nadia’s behalf…
    >I do have one question for you, however, about being in the “image of
    God.” In your sermon, you said, “… every time I pass an embarrassing
    billboard featuring Jesus and a fetus, I totally get why reasonable
    people steer clear.” I am assuming that you are pro-choice by this
    statement.

    I think the key word in her statement is ’embarrassing’ rather than the issue of Imago Dei and its presence. The idea that one can post an adequate synopsis of an incredibly complex theology in a picture on a billboard. The idea that one can ‘save’ someone by a billboard is ridiculous to a non-believer [and to believers like myself]. The idea that, ‘simply say a Jesus prayer and everything will be okay’ has probably done more harm to the Kingdom than can be imagined. For every soul that has been refreshed by a random billboard or tract or Bible verse stuck under a windshield, there are probably a thousand who have been damaged by the simplistic approach to serious problems.

  • Cooper

    I just want to know, a quote, a specific quote, Sarah Palin said about poor people, that was mean and stupid. I AM NOT A FAN OF HERS. But I want to know. Thanks.

  • Thanks again, Nadia, for an eyes-wide-open look at joy and pain piled on top of each other–the way both tend to happen.

    I appreciate and share your discomfort with “pop a pill” instant-fix and reductionist images like the anti-abortion billboard and the “prosperity gospel” preaching, and the condemnation of the poor and “different.” Those messages and images seem simultaneously abusive and unaware of the more complex Reality Behind it All.

    On a related note, I’m glad you have decided to “reclaim” your worship time and get back together with each other. May your turkey sandwiches reach all the people who need them….

  • LiberalLoner

    Thank you for this.