Do. Not. Cause. Yourself. Harm.
we are all still here
Last week, I preached a version of this sermon at The Festival of Homiletics, a national preaching conference that happened to take place here in Denver. As I stood and looked out from the front of beautiful, historic Trinity United Methodist Church I started by saying that I was grateful for that particular church’s hospitality in more than one way. “When I was the young alcoholic and addict shakily attending 12-step meetings in the basement of this church there was NO WAY I could have imagined it possible that 30 years later I would be in the pulpit of this same church.”
But in that basement other people told me that the pain of the present does not have to determine the possibilities of the future.
This sermon is about the pain of suicide. If that’s not something you are in an emotional space to handle, maybe bookmark it and return later.
So much of the meaning comes in the delivery of sermons… if you can, I encourage you to listen, rather than just read. The text and sermon starts at minute 19.
We Are All Here
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken, and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them, and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God. - Acts 16
When I first chose this text I thought I would for sure preach about our sisters here in the Denver Women’s prison, or the violence of xenophobia, or the trauma of natural disasters all of which are worthy of sermons and none of which mattered after I got a certain text message from a friend.
I had what we call, a pretty good plan.
until something happened
…and then this one particular part of our text was all I could think about.
What happened is that sadly, tragically, I received a message that my friend’s 76 year old mother had just that day, died by suicide.
And then a couple days later, the state of Colorado published some grim statistics about teen suicide.
And then The NewYorker ran some alarming essays about child suicide
And then I heard how many funerals there have been here at Montview for those who died by their own hand.
So, yeah… after all that, all I could think about was a part of this story I hadn’t given much thought to before - all I could think about was that prison guard who was about to kill himself.
And there was one particular question about one particular moment in the text that kept haunting me: what thoughts formed in the mind of the jailer in the time between waking up and drawing his own sword? What lies did he believe to be true when he reached for it?
That he had failed at his job (not true) and could never survive the repercussions of his failure (also not likely true)?
That his family was better off without him (for sure not true)?
That he was not worthy to live (not even a little bit true)?
If there is something in the name of Jesus to say “come out of him”, it would be the lies that led him to reach for his sword.
There’s a reason that in parts of the Hebrew Bible, the devil is called ha satan….which translates The Accuser. The Accuser.
It is the voice of The Accuser that tells us lies about ourselves and other people.
Maybe we can never know what thoughts form the minds of those who cause fatal harm against themselves but I do know that the accusing voice that bullies them, the accusing voice that lies to them, that makes them lift their swords against themselves is not the voice of God.
I do not know what thoughts form the minds of those who cause fatal harm to themselves, what lies they are believing to be true, but I do know this:
I do know, in fact, I am intimately aware of the unholy mix of anger, guilt and grief that visits we who have survived the suicide of someone we love.
Who among us has not been touched by this brutally complicated sorrow?
I do know that ha satan is greedy, and is not satisfied with telling lies just to those who cause themselves harm, because the voice of the accuser – it comes after us as well… making us think that we actually could have kept that friend or loved one alive if only we’d returned their last voice mail or said the right thing or not said the wrong thing, or showed up just a couple hours earlier than we did. And yet it doesn’t really work like that.
We so often are left assuming that something that would have helped us could have helped them, but an encouraging touch or word is emotional ibuprofen – universally helpful for small aches and pains but as beautiful as it is, it does very little for severe agony.
In our text, I am deeply moved that Paul cried out in the darkness “do not harm yourself – for we are still here” and how that word was enough for that jailor to drop his sword. (As an aside, I have often wondered if in Judas Iscariot’s ears there was ever placed a word of grace. Did someone say, you’re believing the wrong story entirely. Do not harm yourself, Judas, we are all still here. Do not choose death before seeing that death is done for.)
Yet, as powerful as that can be, perhaps we best not tempt ourselves to believe that that’s all it ever takes … because too many of us have stories of how that same kind of thing didn't work at all. A friend told me last week that unfortunately, some cases of severe mental illness can be so chronic –that she understands them as a terminal illness.
It all feels impossible to get right.
Because too many of us have stories of people we loved who either showed no signs at all and now we are left trying to make sense of the senseless, or who showed all the signs in the world and no matter how much we begged them to not harm themselves because we are still here it seemingly mattered not at all.
And yet, importantly, sometimes it can matter, there are those in our lives, or maybe there are those in this room who were telling themselves a story with no escape but death and yet someone said a thing or did a thing which diverted there impulse and somehow they are still here. You are still here, and I praise God for that.
So this is all such a tender, brutal and complicated mystery.
And given all of that, we have to ask…does what we as the church do even still matter? Does it matter that we, what? read these old stories and sing these old songs and say these old prayers.
I don’t want to over simplify it, but given that the suicide rate has risen astronomically in the last 15 years - during the same period of time that our culture has doubled down on the false story that autonomy is the highest good,
and that we do not need each other,
and that we do not need our elders,
and that the resources of creation are all disposable and for sale to the highest bidder,
and that the most valuable thing you can do is be a digital influencer of other people through mainly lying about life,
and that you can actually “manifest” everything you want in life and if you haven’t managed to yet, it’s because you just aren’t trying hard enough,
and that whiteness is the arbiter of all things good and pure,
and you better hope that no one ever finds out that you made a mistake because in this story there IS NO MERCY
…and, as a bonus, if you are wondering if you yourself are winning or losing in this story, there are heavily filtered images on Instagram you can judge your actual self against to determine the answer and all it takes is unlocking your cell phone with your unsymmetrical face to find out.
So if you are sitting here wondering if Christianity still matters all I can say is it HAS to and you know why? Because at least WE HAVE A BETTER STORY. And don’t we desperately need a better story tight now?
What was the Christ event if not God telling the world that a story better than our violent human competition extravaganza is possible. That God was, is and will continue to redeem us and all of creation through means that would never make them an influencer on Instagram. …through means like embarrassingly pregnant old women, and messiahs conceived by unwed mothers and loving the enemy and dinner with sex workers AND Sadducees, and forgiveness of sins and a crucified savior and outrageous things said by scandalous women and the resurrection of wounded bodies.
And the resurrection of wounded bodies,
and the resurrection of wounded bodies.
Christianity cannot do everything. It cannot. And I dare not say it can.
But it can tell a better story.
But to hear that better story, I need even just one other person.
Because alone, I will always extrapolate only some information about my life, and then start telling myself the wrong story, convinced it’s true. Alone, I will believe only what the accuser tells me about myself. Alone I will despair. I mean, there’s a reason Jesus said where 2 or more are gathered he is there. Because we cannot create the word of the Lord for ourselves, like that jailor, we need even just one other person.
Our text says that at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God when suddenly an earthquake shook the foundations of the prison opening the doors and shackles – when the jailor awoke he assumed they had escaped and drew his sword to kill himself when Paul shouted out “do not harm yourself for we are all here” then the jailor brought them outside and the text says Paul spoke the word of the lord to him.
Paul, caught up in the better story of the good news of Jesus Christ spoke the word of Lord to his own jailor.
And then caught up in that same Gospel story, the jailor brought them to his home and washed the very wounds he was complicit in inflicting.
Do. Not. Cause. Yourself. Harm.
For we are all here. And there are wounds to clean and meals to share and you are not – you are NOT gonna want to miss the impossible, beautiful things to come. We are here. And we want you to stay for all of it.
And let the church say,
There is someone on the other end of this line 24 hours a day: 800-273-8255. If you have thoughts of causing yourself harm, please dial that number.
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