"We Are Not Forsaken": a Funeral Sermon

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The following is a sermon given at a funeral for a 19-year-old who took his own life (see blog post). All names are changed, but all the sad facts are true. I pray my interpretations and shadings are accurate and help find some “comfort in life and death” for the community here and, with God’s grace, for some others  dealing with great pain while hoping in the Lord.

Tommy, for years you always made us laugh–but not a week ago Saturday.

Tommy–son, brother, foster son, dear friend: What happened to you? Where did the laughter go? What could anyone have done? We still can’t believe you’re gone.

Those are just some of the questions probably everyone here has asked since last Saturday. Questions like that beg for rational answers, but what Tommy has gone through and what family and friends are going through now defy reason. We can analyze all we want and the questions will still scream at us.

But there is another way to look for answers–not to the “why” questions, but responses from Psalm 22. This poem traces a route of suffering and recovery. It starts where Tommy spent much time recently, as friends tell me–feeling empty, abandoned. Yet Psalm 22 ends with God’s promises for weary and people carrying heavy burdens–for Tommy and all here.

Psalm 22 will not answer even one “why” or “what” question about Tommy and that awful Saturday. Instead, this poem that Jesus quoted on the cross shows a route through suffering by helping us live for a few minutes as Tommy lived for longer than anyone knew during his unstoppable journey toward death. Finally Psalm 22 will shine a light on how to see Tommy as he lived for most of his 19 years as we try to look beyond this dark day.

 We read Psalm 22:1-11

1My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
      Why are you so far from saving me,
       so far from the words of my groaning?

    2 O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
      by night, and am not silent.

    3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
      you are the praise of Israel.

    4 In you our fathers put their trust;
      they trusted and you delivered them.

    5 They cried to you and were saved;
      in you they trusted and were not disappointed.

    6 But I am a worm and not a man,
      scorned by men and despised by the people.

    7 All who see me mock me;
      they hurl insults, shaking their heads:

    8 "He trusts in the LORD;
      let the LORD rescue him.
      Let him deliver him,
      since he delights in him."

    9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;
      you made me trust in you
      even at my mother's breast.

    10 From birth I was cast upon you;
      from my mother's womb you have been my God.

    11 Do not be far from me,
      for trouble is near and there is no one to help.

No one really knows when it started, but if one word describes what Tommy was experiencing inside during the last months it would be forsaken. From appearances, though, most thought Tommy had much to live for. He was young, smart, short!!, strong, athletic. He had nearly finished high school credits in what kids these days call a “victory lap.” He had great friends for housemates. He hoped to get into a police foundations course sometime soon. He had so many good friends from a couple of school communities and good relationships with brother Tim and sister Shirley.

Forsaken? We would have thought Tommy lived a pretty rich life in several overlapping communities.

Sometime ago, though, some folks noticed some disturbing things. He and his girlfriend broke up. He stayed up all hours. He didn’t have a job right now. He was having money problems and having a hard time getting rent payments together.

But now we see that the first part of Psalm 22 sounds like Tommy’s autobiography for longer than we knew. Was he sinking deep into a despair that he masked with laughter, while making others laugh so hard that tears came to their eyes? Today, sadly, you have different kinds of tears that Tommy caused you too.

Still, there were the times of almost manic fun: learning to longboard with Flip Nixon, risking life and limb careening down hills and through traffic. Flipping off buses randomly, as friends have talked about. Tommy just didn’t seem forsaken–but that is indeed what his last actions made clear about his last interior life.

Of course, there are all the people here who feel forsaken too. We have suffered a great, premature and cruel loss–even after many spent so much time with Tommy, talking with him, encouraging him, telling him how much you loved him, trying to get into Tommy’s heart and soul that you feared was fragile. But that was so hard to see truly, deeply.

Maybe you feel not only confused, but also cheated. Couldn’t Tommy trust you deeply enough not to do what he did? Didn’t he tell you again and again, he’d never do what his brother did five years ago, because he wouldn’t put his friends and family through such agony. But he did–even though you tried to warn him steer him off, stop him with your friendship, your love, your conversations, your devotion, your fun of just hanging out.

 Tommy, you made us weep a week ago last Saturday and every day since then.

That wasn’t the Tommy we thought we knew. But let me offer you a hint of comfort: That WAS the Tommy that God knew, even if Tommy didn’t know or couldn’t express all the pain of the demons he was battling.

Yes–God knew, because remember this: Jesus shouted words from Psalm 22 from the cross in the last violent hours of his suffering. We must keep reading Psalm 22 in the light of the Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. We can keep repeating what was perhaps also Tommy’s cry of abandonment, although he didn’t always share it deeply with those who loved him and whom he loved. Yet Jesus’ cry from the cross was also Tommy’s cry, even if he didn’t always put his suffering in the terms of feeling forsaken by God.

Remember too: in agony deeper than Tommy ever experienced, our Lord Jesus also cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus–who lived by healing the sick, raising the dead–Jesus, who did the will of his father perfectly, still went to the cross.

In God’s inscrutable plan, God even abandoned his dying son Jesus on the cross. Yes, God forsook himself, because in the mystery of the Christian faith, Father God and Son Jesus are ONE, says Jesus himself in the Gospel of John.

Yet, God Jesus suffered worse than Tommy suffered. Jesus died with words of abandonment fading from his lips. Jesus died on a Friday and remained dead on a Saturday too. But that was not the end of Jesus. Be assured: those few last steps to the closet in his room early Saturday morning were not the end of Tommy.

If we have any comfort, remember that Jesus stayed in the grave only three short, though terrible, days. If we have any hope, remember and believe that Jesus arose from that grave and lives. Tommy will remain in the grave longer than that, but remember that for most of his years Tommy knew Jesus, prayed to Jesus who died and arose, so that Tommy Hartzel and you and I can live.

The last days or moments of Tommy’s life here are not the measure of our memories. Let the measure of our memories be nearly all the other years and months that you knew Tommy, when he lived hopefully, bravely, courageously through some might rough patches. When he lived creating random hilarious events you witnessed or took part in.

You tell me that often Tommy lived joyfully, overcoming daily doubts and despair with a deep-rooted certainty that Jesus lives–values, beliefs he learned at Beacon, Eden at the Lewises, at Aunt Phyllis’s home, with many of you. That was the Tommy whom God knew and knows still today. Let us remember that Tommy Hartzel as we read the last part of Psalm 22, for this too can be Tommy’s autobiography for the rest of his life in eternity as it was his autobiography for most of his life here.

 Psalm 22:22-31

    22 I will declare your name to my brothers;
      in the congregation I will praise you.

    23 You who fear the LORD, praise him!
      All you descendants of Jacob, honour him!
      Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!

    24 For he has not despised or disdained
      the suffering of the afflicted one;
      he has not hidden his face from him
      but has listened to his cry for help.

    25 From you comes the theme of my praise

 in the great assembly;
      before those who fear you will I fulfill my vows.

    26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;
      they who seek the LORD will praise him—
      may your hearts live forever!

    27 All the ends of the earth
      will remember and turn to the LORD,
      and all the families of the nations
      will bow down before him,

    28 for dominion belongs to the LORD
      and he rules over the nations.

    29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
      all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
      those who cannot keep themselves alive.

    30 Posterity will serve him;
      future generations will be told about the Lord.

    31 They will proclaim his righteousness
      to a people yet unborn—
      for he has done it.

For most of his short life, Tommy experienced the grace and goodness of God rescuing him. In his friendships with so many of you, he gave witness to the God whom he knew “did not despise the affliction of the afflicted”–especially because deep down Tommy knew and felt his own affliction.

Tommy, we wish that in the last weeks or maybe months you had been able to experience that God loved you deeply and did not despise your own profound affliction.

For years Tommy “joyfully paid his vows to the Lord”–worshiping and singing here at Maranatha, Covenant, Southridge, playing his guitar, attending Beacon and Eden. He showed up at Senior Youth at Covenant pretty often. Tommy made many and deep friends from all those communities and more. Here is where he hung out with kids for some ten years. Here is where he wept at Tim’s funeral.

For most of his brief life in God’s mysterious grace, God gave Tommy to people to make them laugh with and at him and at themselves. God gave him to us to grow and play. And how funny, yet poignant is the memory of Tommy on a class canoe trip a few years ago, singing with Andy Cowan at the top of his lungs for hours and hours–“This train is bound for glory, this train.” Sometimes glory, when it comes down hard on earth like today is really hard to take. 

Now and again, though, you knew something was off. When you friends stayed up late Friday night with him, when you saw him at about 3:30 come from his room, go down for a smoke, you were wary, not real at ease, but you couldn’t do anything, because you didn’t know for sure and you’d talked late and long with him. You just can’t do more. Now all you can do is think, pray and maybe sing songs Tommy loved through lumps in your throats. 

As I was preparing this meditation, it struck me that maybe we should have picked one more song, because from everything I know of Tommy, #544 in the gray Psalter Hymnal seems to me to be a song whose ideas, if not the very words, were on Tommy’s heart often:

“Lead me, guide me, along the way,for if you lead me, I cannot stray. Lord, let me walk each day with you, lead me my whole life through.”

“I am weak and I need your strength and power to endure with grace my weakest hour. Help me through the darkness you face to see. Lead me, O Lord, lead me.”

Let no one ever say that the Lord led Tommy into that closet early Saturday morning. Don’t believe that for a moment. But I do believe that the Lord led him away from that closet, allowing Tommy to find rest in a desperate way, yet tragic way.

Now Tommy has left us, forsaken us. We are stunned, angry, maybe feeling guilty. But let us not remain there. Let us remember that in the mystery of salvation after God abandoned his Son Jesus on the cross, that Jesus rose from death and the grave. Let us remember that because of his Son Jesus, god did not forsake Tommy. God will not forsake us. We know that even in Tommy’s deepest anguish, God’s promises hold for the most anguishing of his children.

Although for some time Tommy had a hard time praying in words, remember Paul’s promise in Romans 8:26 & 27: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit speaks for us with sighs and groans too deep for words.”

Tommy surely groaned. God heard. Tommy was not utterly forsaken. Friends, family, your sighs and groanings may well be too deep for words today too, but sigh and groan, leaning on the Spirit to say the words that fail you.

Hear 1 Corinthians 15: “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown I dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.”

Lord, you have taken the sown seed that is Tommy. Hold him, grow him, keep him, love him, raise him.

Lord, take the seeds that are his parents, his siblings, his friends, his foster parents and their families. Hold them, hold us, grow us, keep us so they can see Tommy and Tim and Alice and John and so many others when you sound your trumpet, when the dead are raised imperishable, when mortality becomes immortal.

Lord, for all who weep, for all who as in a mirror, dimly, keep them in the firm and lasting hope to see you face to face.

Revelation 7:7-13

   9After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10And they cried out in a loud voice:
   "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb." 11All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12saying: "Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honour and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!"

    13Then one of the elders asked me, "These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?"

    14I answered, "Sir, you know."

And he said, "These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15Therefore, "they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. 16Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. 17For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

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Community Builder

Tears are coming.... the beauty of the promises touches my own memories of losing a daughter a year ago to leukemia.  The promises are so good, and the earthly reality is sometimes so very painful.   This is an  incredibly deep and many layered Psalm, and it speaks to situations that are indeed too painful for words.   Is there any situation or experience that is so awful that God is absent?   Only that  one time on Calvary, and never again.   Thanks be to God.  Thanks, Jim, for preaching it, and for sharing it.  

Community Builder

Yes, thank you for sharing this. I hope many people read it. Stanley

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