Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Unforgiveable Sin? Blasphemy!

Pentecost III – June 10, 2018 – St Martin in the Field, Selbyville, DE
(Lectionary Lessons appointed for Pentecost II I can be found here.) 

They thought he was crazy! His family thought he had lost his mind!

Jesus had been working hard – healing many sick people – and the word about him quickly spread. People came from Judea and Jerusalem and the regions around the Jordan, from Tyre and Sidon, just to be healed by Jesus.

There were so many people pressing around Jesus that he ordered his disciples to get a small boat to be set in the Lake so that all the people might not crowd him. He healed many of them with many different diseases and those possessed of “impure spirits” fell down before him and proclaimed him the Son of God. But he gave them strict orders not to tell anyone.

He left the lake and went up to the mountainside where he called the 12 to be his disciples, changing Simon’s name to Peter and calling brothers James and John the Sons of Thunder. And, among them was Judas Iscariot, who would betray him.

After that, they came down off the mountainside and entered the house where they might have something to eat, but again the crowds surrounded them and begged for mercy and healing. And Jesus, of course, healed them. We can only imagine the scene.

When his family heard about it they were worried and went to “take charge of him”. 

They were afraid he was out of his mind. 

The teachers of the Law who had come down from Jerusalem said Beelzebub, the Prince of Demons, had possessed him. 

Imagine! Saying THAT to Jesus!

But, Jesus dismissed them with parables – one of which is deeply disturbing. Well, it is, at least, to me. He says, “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness. Never. Guilty of an eternal sin.

Has he lost his mind? Jesus has preached that God is love, and that God’s forgiveness and mercy are unending. Are we now to believe that this same God withholds forgiveness for this one sin? Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? What does that even mean?

Different branches of Christianity have different responses to that. Augustine of Hippo said this was the most difficult passages from scripture. Thomas Aquinas listed six sins against the Holy Spirit, including despair, presumption and envy.

Because of this teaching, the church - meaning all churches - saw suicide as a sin of despair and thought it unforgiveable.  Those  who had committed suicide were not granted a Christian funeral or burial in a Christian graveyard. The Roman Catholic Church was one of the last ones to hang onto this belief.

That has changed, of course - including Rome - and we now understand suicide to be the result of the mental illness of depression. There have been two celebrities – Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain – who have committed suicide this past week which has, once again, since the suicide of Robin Williams, raised the conversation about despair and forgiveness and suicide.

I want to be very clear with you this morning: Suicide is not a sin. Suicide is the direct result of depression – an emotional pain so severe that the only way a person can see to end the pain is through death. Suicide can strike when it is least expected – when everyone thinks the cloud of darkness has lifted and everything is going alright.

I had a dear friend, Eileen Gallagher, who was a nurse. She worked in the cardiac intensive care unit and was an excellent nurse – highly skilled and deeply compassionate. Eileen had battled depression all her life. She was Irish so we teased her about being “from the North” – sometimes called the “Black Irish” –where the Irish had married the Normans, from France, as well as the Spanish traders and sailors and had darker hair and complexion to match their darker moods.

Indeed, she would tell us that the translation of Gallagher from the Celtic means “foreign help”. 

I remember her saying once that perhaps the fact that she never felt she fit in anywhere and always felt like an outsider was “just in her blood”.

There came a time, however, when despite her ethnic heritage, the cloud of darkness which seemed always to follow Eileen dispersed and she seemed to be doing well. We were all relieved. And, happy that she seemed finally and for whatever reason, to be happy

Well, that was until one morning, several weeks later, when Eileen didn’t show up for work. One of her friends went to her apartment and found her dead. She was sitting up in her chair, facing the window which looked out on the city.

We later learned that she had been saving up the cardiac drug Digoxin which she could have easily taken out of the hospital pill supply without anyone noticing. She apparently took a heavy overdose of the drug which caused her heart to immediately stop beating.

Eileen’s death was the first I had experienced of a person close to my own age. Her death was also the first suicide I had experienced. It was, in a word, devastating. I was simply devastated. And, confused. And, anxious. I was also afraid that she had committed the “unforgiveable sin” of despair and worried that she might not get into heaven.

I found myself overwhelmed by a strong desire to go to church – to attend Mass and receive communion. In my mind – or, more accurately, out of my mind with grief – I thought I might intercede with Jesus for my friend Eileen, and beg that she be forgiven.

I was doing well until we came to the part when the priest breaks the bread. I don’t know about you, but that’s always a very powerful moment for me – whether I’m sitting in the pew or privileged to be at the altar, breaking the bread as a priest in the church.

In that moment, something in me broke and I wept and wept and wept. I wept not because I thought Eileen was going to hell but because I knew she was safe, now, in the arms of Jesus. I wept not because she needed me to intercede for her – how arrogant of me to even think that – but  because I realized that Eileen knew something about God’s love and forgiveness that I obviously didn’t. Indeed, I think she risked her very life on it.

To understand this, we need to listen to these words of Jesus about blasphemy and remember to whom he directed them. Jesus was speaking directly to the Pharisees who seemed to know a lot about rules and how to enforce them, but seemed not know anything about the power of God’s love and forgiveness. They did not believe that Jesus was the most precious part of that same God. Indeed, I’m sure Jesus already knew that they were plotting with the Herodians to kill him.

Over the years of studying this text, I have come to believe that Jesus intentionally used the theological word “blasphemy” because he knew it would get the attention of the Pharisees. He turned their harness of heart against them, essentially saying, “You want to dictate who is forgiven and who isn’t? Consider this: YOU won’t be forgiven because YOU have said that I have an unclean spirit.”

I think he might have gotten their attention, don’t you? And, I think it’s pretty clear that he was Very Angry. Sometimes, anger can lead us to overstate the point. 

I know that happens to me when I'm angry. My kids remind me that I used to send them off to their room for punishment, saying at the top of my voice, "And, you'll be grounded until you're 35!"

I say that he said those words in anger, directed at the Pharisees, because the very next words out of his mouth to the crowd are ones of expansive love. The mother and brothers of Jesus have come to him because they are worried about him. One of the disciples tells him that his family wishes to see him, and Jesus responds, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister and mother.”

Has he lost his mind? Can you imagine how hurt his family must have been? Well, Jesus says that not to hurt his family but to underscore the amazing love and grace and forgiveness of God which breaks down barriers and makes us one in the Love of God. 

That love changes and transforms us and the things we once thought were important are no longer relevant.

These are not light thoughts or easy concepts to get our heads wrapped around. Indeed, I tend to agree with Augustine of Hippo and say, “Yep, this is the most difficult passage in all of scripture.”

In fact, if you said them out loud in most places, people would think that you are crazy! That you have lost your mind!

And to that I’d say, well, people – even his family – thought the same thing of Jesus.

So, I guess you’re in good company.


Suicide Prevention Hotline

No comments: