(Many leaders (including myself) have struggled to give a helpful sermon at the funeral of someone who has taken their own life. I wrote this address for the memorial of a member of my church who had also become a close friend. I have agonised over publishing this talk but I actually think that she would have said, "If its helpful...why not?". With that in mind, I offer it to you in the hope that it may be a comfort or a help to some.)
A Sermon for a Suicide 'Hope: Challenged but not overcome'
Ann Frank inverted Cicero’s common cultural idiom “Where there is life there is hope”, when she said, “Where there's hope, there's life. It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again.” It seems to me highly significant that a young Jewish woman who was facing the horrors of life’s destruction should overturn the definition of hope offered by a comfortable 1st century Roman statesman. Only when the trappings of our comfortable lives are stripped away do we see how enduring hope really is.
Life is not the source of hope. Hope is it the source of life, but is not dependent upon life. In Romans 5:5 Paul says, “Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Today as we gather together to give thanks for the life of our sister XXXX, let us hold onto this hope, a hope that is not defined by the presence of life; one that goes beyond death itself.
When someone takes their own life, they steal away more than their presence with us. In a sense they actively challenge our human optimism that things can always ‘get better’ or be resolved. Suicide is a challenge to hope, but it has no victory over it. At the same time this talk is not a place for sweet platitudes. They were one thing I knew XXXX could not abide, it was reality or not at all! With that in mind I want to speak plainly as a know XXXX would have wanted me to:
Today we are unified in our sadness and love for XXXX. However, over the coming weeks we will all mourn and grieve in different ways. When someone takes their own life this process is greatly complicated by feelings of anger and guilt. We may feel angry at Medical professionals, at the support she received from the community or church, at specific individuals, at God or even XXXX herself. Equally many of us will and are struggling with guilty feelings: Why didn’t I call more? Why didn’t I pop over that morning? Could I have averted this tragedy somehow? Was our last meeting a positive one?
There is little remedy for these feelings other than the acknowledgement that we share them and the God of all comfort can comfort us in them. A counsellor from the SOBS (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide) helpline told me that, “You have to learn to live with the question, ‘Why?’ recognising that it will never be answered completely. You have to understand that your life will be different from now on.”
When we think of XXXX and we wonder, ‘Why?’ Think of her incredible courage in the face of a suffering that none of us can comprehend. Remember her incredible determination to press through physical and emotional pain to bless and befriend others, often consoling and comforting us in far less serious circumstances. Remember her lack of complaint, her incredible intellect and her sharp humour. Remember her with empathy and admiration. Hope may not be found in answers to human questions, but it can be seen in divine compassion, a compassion that XXXX is now receiving in the presence of a Holy God and the compassion we can share with each other in His name.
Whist it is clearly a wrong act in itself, God is not offended by those who wish to take their own life. Indeed they were his friends who received compassion and understanding from his hands. Arthur Guiderman wrote, “When life is woe and hope is dumb, the world says ‘go’ and the grave says ‘come’”. Moses in Numbers 11:15 calls out; “Put me to death right now!” Elijah prays in 1 Kings 19:4, “I have had enough, Lord, take my life”. Jonah (Jonah 2: 8/9) said, “It would be better for me to die than live, I am angry enough to die”. In Matthew 27:5 Jesus is touched by the death of one of his dearest companions and in Acts 16:27 Paul intervenes when the Philippian jailer is just about to take his own life.
Why is this significant to us today? Edgar Allen Poe said, “Even in the grave, all is not lost.” You see God is ultimately sovereign over death, therefore Ann Frank and not Cicero are proved right: hope is the birthplace of life but life is not the final resting place of hope.
When Jesus’ life was taken on the Cross, it appeared that all hope was lost. Those who had followed him into Jerusalem wept for him, his mother wept for him, his disciples wept for him. No doubt they asked similar questions in their grief to us in ours: What was our last meeting like? Could I have done anything different? Why did this happen? Then in Matthew 28:9 Jesus rises from death and hope is restored, “Greetings!” He said, “Do not be afraid!” On The Emmaus Road he consoled and walked alongside two friends, who like us, were lost in their grief. But then he revealed himself to them as a hope beyond life.
In Jesus, God demonstrated his mastery over death. In John 11:25, Jesus said of himself, “I am the resurrection and the life.” This new hope meant that all those who put their hope in him would join him beyond this world of mourning, in that new world of worship. All sin, committed at the beginning, middle or even at the very end of our lives would be forgiven and covered by his sacrificial blood.
William Cowper (1731-1800), my favourite Christian poet, attempted to take his own life several times. After recovering from the last attempt he penned, ‘There is a fountain filled with blood.’
"There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel's veins And sinners plunged beneath that flood Lose all their guilty stains For since by faith I saw the stream Thy flowing wounds supply Redeeming love has been my theme and shall be till I die."
I shall miss XXXX a great deal. But I have a hope that one day I shall also be where she is, because she also shared in a hope that is not constrained by death.
Lord have mercy upon us all.