Let’s Talk About Suicide. Judas Iscariot, Kate Spade, and Anthony Bourdain: We are to Have Good Hope for All!, Matthew 27:3-10

Sermon:          Judas Iscariot, Kate Spade, and Anthony Bourdain: We Are to Have Good Hope for All!
Scripture:        Matthew 27.3-10
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:         First Pres Fort Lauderdale
Date:                 June 17, 2018, Father’s Day

This morning, we are going to be looking at a text, which I must admit, I have never preached on before.  Turn in your Bible to Matthew 27: 3-20.  We are deviating from the lectionary text in order to look at an issue that has been in the news the past few weeks.  We are going to frame our thoughts around the title, “Judas Iscariot, Kate Spade, and Anthony Bourdain:  We Are to Have Good Hope for All” this morning, we are going to address the issue of suicide and see what scripture might have to say.

Our community in Broward County knows all too well the pain from senseless deaths.  On Valentine’s Day this year, 17 people were gunned down at a Parkland High School which has lit the fires nationally as a debate for common sense gun laws.  According to the Washington Post, 141 children, educators, and bystanders have been killed in our schools with another 287 injured.[1]  Our country is up in arms over such a statistic as well it should be!  The media and our politicians have been vocal on what some have called an epidemic.  As horrible as those numbers are, did you know that in 2017 alone, 45,000 died from suicide?[2]  Sixty-two percent or roughly 28,000 of those people died from self-inflicted gunshot wounds.[3]  The majority who harm themselves are male but the number of women in middle age is expanding quickly.[4]  To put it in perspective, the number of people who die by suicide in our country is about one third (1/3) of the total population of the city limits of Fort Lauderdale.  Where’s the press on that?  Where is the civil discourse and angst about that?  I’ll tell you where it is; its’ buried in the fact for why we don’t have many sermons on Matthew 27: 3-10 because the issue of suicide is one of those taboo topics.  As a result of the stigma placed upon those who choose self-harm and destruction, we choose not to talk about it until someone famous like Kate Spade or Anthony Bourdain do the unthinkable.  Our silence on the subject simply adds to the stigma of surrounding it.  Beloved, we can ill-afford to be silent any longer as our silence only contributes to spiritual, social and emotional misunderstandings of suicide.  Let’s look at our text in Matthew.  It’s a text we know about but often skip over:

Matthew 27.3-10

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, 10 and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”[5]

As we look at this text, I am in no way saying what Judas did was right, either in betraying Jesus or in taking his own life.  I do believe, however, Judas’ story gives those of us in the Christian community a better understanding as to why he chose the path he did.  Our text is illustrative.

Judas comes as a man saturated with guilt and shame.  His fervent hopes for who and what Jesus was to be and do were not realized.  He knows he lived as a disciple but like many in the church today, his name was on the rolls, but he didn’t really know what discipleship meant for him.  When his role as a disciple didn’t mesh with what Jesus intended, Judas quickly bailed out and arranged for Jesus’ arrest.  In the ensuing time between selling Jesus out and coming back to the religious authorities, Judas’ spirit was crushed and overwhelmed.  The horrible weight of what he had done and the pain it was causing Judas became intolerable, and Judas, with the mantle of guilt and shame tries to do something about it.  When Judas saw that his actions were going to cost Jesus His life, Judas’ despair drove him to action.  What does our text say?

The first thing our text says in verse 3 is that when Judas saw the outcomes of his selfishness, he repented.  Isn’t that what Jesus wants all people to do? Repent?  Judas in his spiritual and emotional crisis turned around 180⁰ in the other direction.  He fully embraced and acknowledged his selfishness.  The word for “repent” Matthew uses is one that describes a turning around because of deep shame and sadness; in other words, it’s a word that indicates a deep remorse for what he did.

The second reality we note is that Judas didn’t keep his remorse to himself. He goes to the Jewish religious leaders and tries to make restitution for what he did.  He tries to give back the 30 pieces of silver he sold Jesus out for in the first place.  In his state of mind, in the despairing swamp of pain in his soul, he tried to rectify the problem the only way he knew how.

Judas then does a third thing:  He publicly confesses his sin to the religious authorities and the Chief Priest.  He publicly admitted his sin against Jesus to the very ones who in Jewish law could forgive him.  He’s doing what Jesus told many others to do:  go and show yourself to the chief priests.  And it’s right here that all the wheels fall off the wagon.

Judas repents, tries to recompense for his actions, and then publicly confesses his sin to the chief priests.  He admits he has sinned by betraying innocent blood and then the ones who had the power and ability to forgive him, to release him from his burden, did what?  They smugly reply in verse 4, “What is that to us? See to it yourself!”  What does that mean, “See to it yourself”? The religious community had trusted in, the community who encouraged him to commit the sin of betrayal in the first place gives him the flippant answer, “It’s your problem; deal with it yourself.”  It’s at this point, beloved, we have in scripture an anatomy of suicide.

A broken person gives off signals they are in pain and seeks those in their community for help.  The people in the trusted community either can’t see the pain or chooses to ignore the pain in the other.  Judas the betrayer and the shattered, when ignored by the people in his community, withdraws to be all by himself.  It’s in that moment of sheer loneliness and despair that he takes his own life.  This Story that’s already full of so much pain and tragedy only becomes more mired in even greater pain and tragedy.  What can we learn from all this, beloved?

We learn that Judas’ suicide is not the unforgivable sin our culture and faith traditions have made it be.  Jesus in Mark 3: 29 tells us the only unforgivable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  Suicide is not the unpardonable sin, so brothers and sisters, we need to have good hope for all!  Suicide is the result of a mental illness whereby a person cannot physiologically or emotionally to handle the onslaught of pain and despair in their lives. When a person feels that level of loneliness and hopelessness, he or she takes things into their own hands.  As a person who struggles with PTSD and my own mental illness, I can tell you that depression is one of the most narcissistic conditions known to humanity.  When you are lost in the mire of depression, you cannot see or hear anyone other than yourself. The lonely, depressed, hopeless person is reduced to being only focused on his or her pain and despair. It’s hard to see or hear others. In their minds, no one can understand what they are experiencing; as a result, they withdraw from others and their psyche runs away from them.  Suicide is caused by a brokenness, an illness, in our human condition.  It is not an unforgivable sin but it’s a sin and lack of confidence in God nonetheless.

We also learn from our text that those who do harm themselves are in desperate need of intentional, caring community.  As a faith community and as a culture, we must stop stigmatizing mental illness. We stigmatize mental illness when we tell hopeless people, “Quit feeling sorry for yourself and just pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

We stigmatize mental illness when our insurance systems see it solely as a behavioral issue apart from its biological and physiological consequences and treat it as a lesser medical condition such as cancer or diabetes.

We stigmatize mental illness when we trivially call people “nut jobs” or “whackos”.

We stigmatize mental illness when we see it as something to be ashamed of and hidden and never talked about in our families or churches.

As a faith community, we are on notice not to repeat the sin of the chief priests and blow people off who show signs of emotional brokenness and leave them alone to figure it out on their own.  Our silence on this matter and pretending it does not exist is no longer an option.  So, Church, what are we to do?

Let’s be alert to those in our communities and circles of influence.  Do those we know all of a sudden seem grossly overwhelmed by life’s circumstances?  Do they forget details for the easy-to-remember items? Are they tired all the time and complain of not enough rest? Is there a change in their eating habits? Well, then talk with them about it.

Are there people you know who seem to have uncharacteristically withdrawn into themselves at work, home or at school? These are the people who are usually in the middle of a crowd working the room but now they are sitting off by themselves along the wall. These are the students or employees who typically are first to chime in on new projects and ideas but lately, they have become more silent, maybe even sullen. Then talk with them about your observations.  Check in with them and see how they’re doing.

Have you spent time with someone and the words they use to describe their life and situation seem so dark and heavy they are unable to see any light or hope?  Are they using a lot of first-person pronouns like “I” or “me” in their conversations?  Are their discussions loaded with superlatives like “should” or
“must.”[6]  Then lovingly look them in the eyes and quietly ask, “You seem pretty overwhelmed right now; have you thought of hurting yourself?”  If they hesitate or say ‘yes,’ then assure them you will walk with them until they are feeling whole again as you help them find clinical help and guidance.

Church, we have to be looking out for and listening to each other.  Ultimately, what a suicidal person chooses to do or not is totally up to them and is their responsibility; if a person is going to go and do a selfish act of self-harm, then there is nothing you can do about it.  Yet, you and I are the embodiment of patient, grace-full love to other sheep like us who are broken and weighed down.  Let’s pledge to be more attentive to the bleating sheep whose cries are cries of pain and let them know all hear them.  We may not be able to “fix” their pain, but at least we can embody Jesus as they go through it.  If you or someone you know is talking, thinking or fantasizing about self-harm, please let me know.  For you see, because we have a friend like Jesus, we are to have good hope for all.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Pres Fort Lauderdale
401 SE 15th Avenue
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301
Wrisley@outlook.com
Wrisley.org

© 2018 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] John Woodrow Cox, Steven Rich, Allyson Chiu, John Muyskens and Monica Ulmanu, More than 215,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine, The Washington Post, May 25, 2018.  Accessed on 6/14/2018 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/local/school-shootings-database/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.71568092eaf0.

[2] Ritu Prasad, Why US Suicide Rate is on the Rise, BBC News, June 8, 2018.  Accessed 6/14/18 at

[3] Ibid.

[4] Rhitu Chatterjee, US Suicide Rates are Rising Faster Among Women than Men, NPR, June 14, 2018. Accessed on 6/14/18 at  https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/06/14/619338703/u-s-suicides-rates-are-rising-faster-among-women-than-men

[5] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[6] Elizabeth Bernstein, The Words That Can Signal if You’re Depressed, The Wall Street Journal, June 11, 2018.  Accessed on 6/14/18 at https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-words-that-can-signal-youre-depressed-1528724000.

The Message: Live!, Ezekiel 37:1-14 (Where is God in our spiritually dry moments?)

Sermon:          Live! (Where is God in our spiritually dry moments?)
Scripture:       Ezekiel 37:1-14
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:        First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:               April 2, 2017, Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A

This morning’s scripture is one of the classical Biblical texts that conjures up vivid scenes in its writing.  The prophet Ezekiel, like Jeremiah, is given vivid stories and word pictures that convey God’s words to the people scattered in exile.  Exile from the Promised Land occurred when the people of Israel wanted an earthly king like all the other nations in lieu of God being their King; the problem was that once the kings got in place, the nation of Israel began to hit the skids because of corrupt leadership that split the nation into the northern nation of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah.  Once the nation was split, they were easy pickings for Persian and Egyptian armies. The Hebrews were scattered and most were taken as exile slaves in what it today’s Iraq.

Ezekiel writes to a people who have lost hope.  They have been overrun and swallowed up into a culture that is not their own, a culture that does not share its same values, ways of life, or understanding of living and worshipping the Divine. As a distinct people of God with their own nation, they were dead.  We pick up in our colorful Story with words of hope and promise from God; indeed, some believe these are the first allusions to resurrection life in the Hebrew scriptures.  As you listen, listen for the three parts of the Story: The prophecy; the reshaping of the people; and the Spirit being breathed upon them giving new life and identity. Listen to the Word of the Lord.

Ezekiel 37:1-14

 37.1The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” 7So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.9Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 11Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.[1]

You know what time of year it is?  It is the time of year when people are starting to feel tired.  Spring breaks are over and teachers, professors, and students are grinding it out to get through the end of the school year. Youth sports is at a fever pitch as the cheer teams, cross country and track teams, baseball, volleyball, softball and lacrosse teams are trying to wind up the season.  Parents are exhausted from hauling carpools from one part of the county or state to the other. College football teams are winding up Spring training before they leave for the summer. Snowbirds are packing up their things and are preparing to head back north for reasons unbeknownst to me.  The Church year is winding down and teachers and volunteers are pooped. But Easter is coming and so we must press on forward. These activities are not bad things in and of themselves but can they can leave us feeling tired.  These are the everyday things that can cause us to become tired.  Add to these activities those items you and I cannot control and we begin to feel like a valley of dry bones in our souls.

Last weekend two Stetson students felt so burdened and emotionally dry and spent they took their own lives.

A four-year-old child died in his bed making a parent’s worst nightmare become true.

A sister saint of this church died during her operation.

Marriages are under strain and the phantom of infidelity overshadows relationships.

Diagnoses of life-changing or life-threatening medical conditions intrude into easygoing, carefree routines and our lives are brought up short as though we have been hit in the gut. These are things that have just happened this week in our community.

My soul’s bones feel parched.  Bleached.  Dried out.

Can you relate?

Ezekiel’s vision is a comfort for those of us who are languishing in a spiritual, emotional, physical, or social desert.  They are comforting words to those of us who are struggling to get through the day at a time of year the heat of life begins to sap our strength away.  The comfort is that God will not only hold us together and reconstitute our broken frames but God breathes the same Creative breath and Spirit into us that God breathed at Creation.  God’s breath brings life to our parched and dried out lives.

But how?  I want to know how God does this when everything feels so dry. And as I was standing in the valley of the dry bones of my soul this week, I began to see how God pulls it off. I can tell you how it happened for me but the reality is that you must experience it and figure it out for yourself.  You see, God will reveal and deliver the living, recreating breath when the moments of your life seem to be the driest and darkest; the dry bones will live when we relax, sit still and then receive the love of God through the Spirit. Let’s break that down a bit.

God reveals himself to us not just when things are bad but God fully discloses himself when bad things have turned even worse.  Ezekiel didn’t see corpses in his vision but he saw a condition that was beyond that of death:  He saw the blanched bones of a nation bleached white in the scorching heat.  There were no bodies but bone remnants that had already been picked over by the birds and rotted by weather. In other words, the very hope of the nation of Israel was one step away from being dried up and blown away into total non-existence.  And this is the environment God uses to reveal himself and recreate life from apparent total despair.

Beloved, the words of comfort for our soul’s dry bones is that when all not only seems dead and gone but our very broken soul’s existence feels it is about to be blown away in the dust, that is the environment God shows his divine power most clearly.  It is when we know there is nothing left to do, no one left to count on that we begin to resign ourselves to the inevitability that we cannot do it on our own;  it’s then and only then we have we made the necessary room for the dynamic power of God to show up.  It’s only when there is no more left to us that we create room and space for God to be God.  When everything in life seems to go our way, we are more prone to miss the Presence of the Holy in our lives because of the lack of problems and hardship.  God is surely there in those bright, good times but we are too busy with the bright good times to notice.  It’s only when the valley is empty, where the wind is hot, and the soul is like a dried, bleached bone left in the sun that we are brought to a place of reliance on the re-creative breath of the Spirit.

It’s in the valley of the dry bones of our spirit and soul that the environment is set for us to receive the extravagant love of God.  It is for the love of his covenant people Israel that God wants to restore their spirit and bring them back to life.  It is for the love of his people that God goes to the most barren, dry, hot, parched places and breathes new life into them.  His breath is life!  He tells them to, “Live!”, and that command initiates from the Lord’s love of the people.

Today, we have a tangible example of how God restores our souls.  The Table set before us was given under the direst condition: The very death of the Son of God. It was only when the earthly Jesus totally surrendered all to God that he could say to you and me, “This is my body and my blood which is for you.”  It’s only in Jesus’ darkest hour, in humanity’s most tragic moment, that the Love of God could be seen and experienced so dramatically and brightly.

Is your soul bone dry?  Are there moments when you wonder if God is even around or even cares?  If so, those are the moments you are to pay attention.  Those are the moments God will use to re-form us, reshape us, re-ligament us and re-create us. God will do it in the shared expression of love those placed in our lives who will demonstrate it to us.

The Table reminds us God is most clearly present and visible when life seems to be at its worst and most desperate; it demands that we remember that God is most clearly present in sacrificial love.  When there is darkness, look for the light of Love and there my beloved, you will see dry bones live.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1]The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.