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.