As I write, I am aware that September is National Suicide Prevention Month and September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day. It’s the prefect time to talk about God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy and how they save lives, or could if congregations could grasp hold of them in meaningful, transformative ways.
Let’s start with the story of the Israelites escaping Egypt. This is a familiar story. We know that God heard the people’s cry and sent Moses and Aaron to free them from Pharaoh’s oppressive rule, a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph. After a series of plagues, the Israelites follow Moses and cross the Red Sea. Pharaoh’s army is washed out. It’s a powerful story of God’s liberating love, without question. If we look closer, there are also some indications of how God continues to work in our lives.
The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them.It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.Exodus 14:19-20
Notice that the angel, the cloud, moves from the position of leading out of oppression to the position of protector from the persuers. It’s the next verse that I find particularly compelling. The cloud was there with the darkness. In the midst of the fleeing, the fear, the chaos, the literal dark of night, the cloud was there and it provided light, safety, guidance, protection, and hope. It kept the dark from being all there was. What a powerful metaphor for the Body of Christ today. If we could be the presence that is there with the darkness, the despair, the hopelessness, the depression, the chaos, then we, as church, could be the beacon that keeps the gaping maw of total despair at bay. If we could be the embodiment of the liberating God who offers love, forgiveness, and mercy without judgement or condition, we could save lives. Imagine the church as the cloud, the messenger of God, that can lead out of oppression and protect from the oppressive forces. There would be hope for all, especially those who struggle with suicidality.
If this story is not sufficient for how the church could be a powerful witness while in the midst of all that is life-destroying in this world, there are others. Think of the story of Joseph. He was thrown into a pit by his brothers and sold into slavery. When he could have become embittered and held onto anger, he offered forgiveness to his brothers. He recognized that while his brothers had intended harm, God transformed Joseph situation into something good and lifesaving. We can learn much from this story.
We can see that we should not look down on those caught in the “pits” of today’s world. It’s not like they fell into the depths on their own. While their literal siblings might not have been the ones to discard them, they were definitely discarded. Also, we never know whom God will pick to do great things, even those who have been sold out by others who ought to know better.
And then there is the forgiveness piece. Joseph modeled how God forgives us – without condition. It was enough for Joseph that his brothers came with humility seeking his help. God requires even less than that. Of course, we cannot find God’s forgiveness and live it out if we do not go seeking it with humility. So, too, for our congregations. We need to approach God like Joseph’s brothers, acknowledging that we are responsible for the pits of society; if we didn’t help dig them, we’ve not done all that we could to fill them in. While we are seeking God’s forgiveness, we also need to be offering it much more freely. If God forgives without condition, the church should be like Joseph was with his brothers and be profligate with forgiveness.
Just imagine how a forgiving community could change the life of someone who lives with tremendous guilt and shame over things that they have done or things that have been done to them. A word of forgiveness, an act of merciful acceptance, can save lives when offered with sincerity. For the person who lives with symptoms of mental illness, especially suicidality, a reminder of God’s forgiveness embodied by a community has more power than most of us recognize.
Jesus was clear on the power and importance of giving and receiving forgiveness. You know, “forgive seventy-seven times” meaning as many times as necessary. If we believe that we are loved without condition, then we must work toward accepting God’s unconditional forgiveness. It’s imperative that we do this. There are people in this world who are desperate for hope, desperate for the presence of God to be with them, illuminating a way through the hopelessness, promising liberation and protection. People who experience suicidality are unlikely to encounter God’s presence because depression lies and blocks out everything except one’s own utter lack of worth. If we want to save lives, then we must embody Divine Love, demonstrating unconditional forgiveness, and offering continuous mercy.
No one is exempt from suicidal thoughts, especially now in this time of pandemic. While we work toward living into God’s vision of love, forgiveness, and mercy, let’s take time to equip ourselves to save lives. Learn the risks for suicide, the warning signs, and the resources in your community and denomination. Hopelessness, depression, anxiety, and suicide are all on the rise. When we embody God’s love without conditions, we save lives. When we talk about mental illness and suicidality in our churches, we save lives. This is the work that God has set before us in 2020 – to do all that we can to save lives. We have work to do. Yet, we do not go alone. There is a Light that shines with us all and nothing can extinguish it. It is our guide and our protector. May we all live lives of love, forgiveness, and mercy so that our churches may be lifesaving.
For more about being a Lifesaving Church.
RCL – Year A – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 13, 2020
Exodus 14:19-31 with Psalm 114
or Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21
Genesis 50:15-21 with Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13