Christians maintain a remarkable relationship with death. A seminary professor of mine, Dr. Roger Ferlo, liked to point out that the early Christians scandalized the citizens of Rome. Before Christians arrived, the dead were kept at bay. The bodies were buried outside the walls of Roman cities, out beyond the border, far from the center of town. Christians did not respect the boundaries of life and death. They brought their martyrs’ bones into the city. They huddled in catacombs for strange rituals. And Christians told stories of Jesus who rose from the dead.
Even today our faith holds a strong connection to death. Our holy places are still made holy by bones and ashes. From the great cathedral shrines of saints in Palestine and Europe to the simple Missouri country churchyards to our own columbarium in the chapel here, Christians insist on gathering the living near the dead when we mark sacred time. We believe how we live and how we die matters.
This morning, I want to spend some time with death and with life. Given the high profile suicides of Anthony Bordain and Kate Spate in recent weeks, the news that suicide is on the rise in our country, I want to lean into the life and death questions of our faith. Christian faith does not make light of these questions. How we die matters. How we live matters more. Our tradition and our Scripture offer wisdom on these questions. Christians for centuries have had an intimate relationship with death.
Our scripture readings today bear out this relationship. First Samuel is haunted by Saul. Though at this point in the narrative, the first king of Israel is still alive, his death is mentioned twice in verse 35. Samuel and the text seem uneasy about Saul’s death.
Saul is one of the more complicated characters in the Bible. The people have begged for a king, and God did not want to provide them a king. But Saul was anointed, on God’s decree, still as we hear today, God seems to regret the decision. The rabbinical interpreters of Scripture are of two minds about Saul. Some hold him in high regard as the first king, the predecessor of David. Others see Saul in a less positive light, as an obstacle David had to overcome. Our relationship to Saul is ambiguous at best.
Saul’s death haunts the scripture today, but you have to read much further in the text to get the details. After God tells Samuel surprisingly to anoint the small and good-looking David, after David slays Goliath, falls in love with Saul’s son Jonathan, and incurs the King’s wrath, somehow David finds himself commanding Saul’s armies. Though Goliath was slain, the Philistines still harass the young kingdom. At the battle of Mount Gilboa, about to be captured, Saul falls on his own sword. He dies by suicide.
Commentators are also divided about Saul’s death. Was this an act of bravery, a refusal to be taken in battle? Was the act a final sign of the weak king’s cowardice? The Bible does not answer. In his lament over Saul, which we will read in a few weeks, David simply cries out about Saul “O how the mighty have fallen!” Suicide leaves us wondering “why?”
How we die matters
Suicide is a human judgement. Ethicists and psychologists tell us that the topography of suicide is tricky. There is not one single cause or diagnosis. Depression can play a role. So can bullying, isolation, boredom and loneliness. Just as there is no universal diagnosis, so too there is no panacea, no universal cure. No single simple way through. Treatment for suicidal ideation can be fraught, ambiguous, and frustrating.
And when a suicide occurs, it still leaves us wondering “why?” when suicide occurs, the community left behind is left in a particular trauma, with difficult questions of “why?” Even when a note or explanation is left behind, the persistence of this “why?” continues. Why couldn’t we reach her? Why did he not say something to us? Why did I not pick up the phone? Those who die by suicide leave a community with more than grief, they leave a community in pain, often feeling both betrayed and somehow culpable. Suicide may seem an escape from suffering for one, but it often causes suffering for many.
Some churches teach clearly that suicide is a sin. Some theologians would argue that suicide is an unforgivable sin. This is not one of those churches, and I am not one of those theologians. I am convinced that God holds the souls of those who have taken their own life with compassion, with welcome, with love. I trust God welcomes those who die by suicide into the arms of mercy, just as God will welcome each and every one of us.
I do not put stock in the idea unforgivable sins because the God I know is all-powerful and all-loving. The God I have come to know through Jesus is too innately involved in forgiveness to allow any sin to be called finally “unforgivable.” I believe God’s love wins, over human pride, over our human grief, over our human isolation. God’s love wins.
How we die matters. There is no escaping death. With modern medicine, many of us will know when we are dying. We will face hard decisions about whether to prolong the dying process through cancer-treatments or other life-extending medicine. We will have to weigh quality of life and quantity of life. And many of us will not know that the end of our earthly life is coming. We will die suddenly, in an accident, of a heart attack, or quietly, mercifully in our sleep. How we die matters, to those who we leave behind. When someone dies peacefully, their death can be a balm to the community and family they leave behind.
How we live matters more
I keep saying how we die matters, but the very last biological moments actually often have little to do with how a death is perceived. The question of death is a question of life. How did she live? How will they be remembered?
St. Paul writes to the Corinthians about the desire Christians have to leave the body and be at home with the Lord. Our true home is with God, and our earthly life is, in some ways, a sojourn. Paul articulates an understanding of the desire for death, but then he goes further. A few verses beyond our reading today, in the same letter, Paul argues that Christ has died for the sake of all. Christ’s death brings us back to God. “So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived…God has trusted us with this message of reconciliation.”
The peace of God is available now, in this life. The peace, the rest, the comfort of God is in the ongoing work of reconciliation, rebuilding relationships, learning to trust, working at love. That life, that love, that care that God promises us in eternity is available now in our earthly life. Despair is the illusion, not hope.
Illusions can be powerful in our world. There’s a reason Paul says, “We walk by faith and not by sight.” Illusions can be powerful. There is a reason Archbishop Tutu has to remind us: Goodness is stronger than evil. Love is stronger than hate. Light is stronger than darkness. Life is stronger than death.” That prayer may take faith to believe in dark moments, but the words are true. We can make it to the other side, in this life.
Communities of faith, like Holy Communion, can play a role in preventing suicide. Friends, family, neighbors can help save a life. Making a phone call. Bringing over dinner. Simply saying “I am here. Call me. You matter.” Gestures, invitations, taking time to really sit with someone matters. Helping to drive a neighbor to an appointment, encouraging a loved one to seek out help, it can make a difference. Our actions, our love, our welcome, making good on promises to show up, it matters.
We can live and love in ways that witness good news, that witness to salvation. We can seek out the lost ones. We can accompany the lonely. We can feed the hungry, clothe the naked, reach out to the stranger.
We won’t be able to prevent every suicide, we won’t, but we can make suicide more difficult. It’s more difficult when you find yourself cared for by a community. We can continue to work for laws that will make it harder to have access to firearms. Suicides account for 61% of the gun deaths in the United States. We can pass laws requiring background checks and expanding access to mental health care.
This work may seem slow, quiet, and frustratingly small. But remember the mustard seed. Faith rarely manifests first in grand miracles. God’s persistent presence appears in small cracks in the status quo. Salvation is spoken by unlikely preachers. You don’t know how much you words might matter to your neighbor, to your cousin, to your friend.
If you take the time to notice and to name someones gifts, if you take the time to say “I see the way you care for your lawn, the way you bless the neighborhood with beauty.” If you take the time to say, “I want to name that your quiet and listening way makes room for folks to share their stories.” We can say, “I notice the way you come to this church each week to pray, to remember your mother, your family.” Keep at it. Your prayers give me hope. If we take the time to notice, to thank, to love one another, we never know how much those words might mean.
You matter to God
The early Christians scandalized their neighbors by bringing in the bones. We are blessed by the way certain Christians have chosen to live, and to die. When we visit the grave of Oscar Romero in El Salvador, we remember his choice to offer his life committed to God’s love for the poor, the vulnerable, the exploited. When we visit the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury, or place an “I voted” sticker on the headstone of Susan B. Anthony, when we visit the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington cemetery, we recall the instinct of those earliest Christians.
The bones and ashes that sanctify Christian holy places tell a story of a trust in a vision bigger than ourselves. We trust God’s dream that all the world might know God’s saving love, not as an obscure concept, but through the small simple acts of community. We trust that God’s dream, God’s vision, God’s Kingdom breaks through in the moments we share, when we feed one another, spend time with one another, notice one another, embrace one another. Our holy places carry the bodies and carry the stories of those who have lived this faith, who have lived this way of life-offering love.
However we live, however we die, we believe that the bones and ashes will be gathered up, risen, made new. We believe that God will reunite the whole human family across time and space, around one table, to feast in the kingdom as those bushes burst into blossom. Have faith. How you die matters. How you live matters more, because you matter to God.