Homily: December 14, 2014
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT, YEAR B; Rev. Theo Park Do you think John the Baptizer was mentally ill?
Do you think Jesus’ family maybe said on occasion,
“Cousin John is a bit odd, bless him!”
One in four people will experience a mental health problem in any year.
Mental health problems like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia
can affect anyone at any time, and it’s likely
that many people in our congregation have been affected.
So why not John?
After all, the backstory tells us that his parents were quite elderly,
a recognized risk factor for possible schizophrenia.
Many of the people we read about in Bible stories
might today be considered as having mental health issues.
It has long been thought that King Saul, in the books of Samuel,
was displaying mood swings that suggest he had bi-polar disorder.
Some think that Paul’s Damascus Road experience
was the result of some sort of breakdown or psychotic episode.
And of course there are the people Jesus encounters who are possessed of demons.
Jesus himself was not immune to accusations about his mental health –
there is a story in the gospel of Mark that tells how his mother and siblings
attempted to have him committed because they were afraid that he had lost his mind.
Some may find these suggestions disturbing or even offensive;
that’s certainly not my intent.
Perhaps we need to ask why it would be so terrible
to think that some of our most inspirational forebears
might have experienced mental health illness!
Do we mistakenly believe that God
cannot or will not work through people with mental health illness?
Do we transfer our judgment of the capacity of others onto God?
Do we think that mental illness is a condition that makes these people
less able to do God’s work, more unlikely to be able to articulate spiritual truth,
or incapable of meaningful participation in worship?
Who do we think “these people” are?
As I just said, statistics show us that one in four people
suffer from mental health illness during their lives.
That figure is based on those who ask for help; the true figure is likely to be even higher. That means; in a congregation of 50 people,
at least 12 members will have experienced or will be experiencing mental health issues.
That includes the clergy, too!
These conditions are part of human living; in addition to chronic neural afflictions,
they are often triggered by life experiences such as grief, trauma and loss,
things that happen to all of us, and none of us should have to suffer in silence
for fear of what others might think or say!
Yet nearly nine out of ten people affected by mental health illness still say
they have faced stigma and discrimination as a result of disclosing their illness.
Often people say the stigma is as bad as the symptoms of the illness itself.
Stigma and discrimination ruin lives –
they stop people from taking part in family, social and community life,
stop people from working who want to and can work,
and even stop people from seeking help.
We need to be clear that mental illnesses are real conditions that occur in real people –
they are not a sign of weakness or an excuse;
they involve real suffering and need real understanding and appropriate responses,
just like any other condition we might develop.
Those who suffer don’t need judgmental attitudes like “Pull yourself together”
or easy-answer platitudes like “I know just how you feel.”
What is needed is a safe space and a listening ear –
and not being talked to as though you are only the illness and not a whole human being. A problem shared can be a problem cut in half if the friend is actually listening.
If we are following the teaching of Jesus,
who met people where they were in life and reached out to them in love and healing,
bringing them into relationship with himself, with community, and with God,
our church will be such a place of welcome, friendship and acceptance.
As those pledged in our baptismal covenant to respect the dignity of every human being,
it is our task to educate ourselves about mental health illness
and to make sure that our welcome is appropriate
and that no-one who enters our church experiences prejudice or feels stigmatized.
There are lots of organizations that can help us do this and I’m sure there are people here
who may be connected to those organizations and can guide us.
Are we willing to step up to the task?
This issue affects us in our immediate neighborhood as well,
as members of DCEH and as the site of a community food shelf.
Homelessness exists when people lack safe, stable, and appropriate places to live. Sheltered and unsheltered people are homeless.
People living doubled up or in overcrowded living situations or motels
because of inadequate economic resources are included in this definition,
as are those living in tents or other temporary enclosures.
Living in shelters or on the streets is certainly difficult,
even for a person whose brain is working “normally.“
But for people with untreated psychiatric illnesses,
who make up 1/3 of the estimated homeless population,
this kind of life is often a living hell.
The quality of life for these individuals is abysmal.
Many are victimized regularly.
One study found that 28 percent of homeless people with previous hospitalizations obtained some food from garbage cans
and 8 percent used garbage cans as a primary food source.
If that’s not a reason to do everything we can to keep the Shelf of Hope open,
I don’t know what is!
If that’s not a reason to do all in our power to lobby our city and state legislators
to provide those in need with adequate access to resources, I don’t know what is!
We are soon to observe our annual celebration of the birth of Jesus.
The traditional telling of that story portrays the savior of the universe
as coming into a world that is indifferent to his appearing,
that shut him out in the cold as people closed their hearts and homes to a couple in need,
that soon caused his family to flee their homeland
as refugees seeking asylum from persecution.
What are we willing to do, as individuals and as a congregation,
to turn this story around, to ensure that the world in our time and on our watch
is willing to extend welcoming hearts and hands,
a warm space to live, a safe environment for all if not a world at peace,
so that those in need may have the basic requirements for life?
What are we willing to do, as individuals and as a congregation,
to protect those whose circumstances make them unable
to care for or protect themselves?
In that light, let me note that I’m very attached to the closing hymn we will sing today,
it speaks to the evangelical in me and our need as Christians to be civically engaged.
It was written for the Iona Community in Scotland, an ecumenical Christian community
founded in 1938 by an inner city minister who was appalled by the lack of impact
the Church had on the lives of those most hard-hit by economic and political events.
The main tenets of the community became peace and justice,
work and a new economic order, and community and celebration.
There are five verses to the original hymn,
but as we discussed what music to include this morning,
Maggie and I decided to drop one of them.
The text is parallel to the others but it has Christ raging, raging in the streets.
Now, can certainly argue that this is biblically sound,
but in the light of our current culture of unrest
we felt that perhaps it was not the stuff of Sunday morning singing.
Besides, the affirmation of faith the Worship Task Force chose for this season—
also taken from the use of the Iona Community—
already has us proclaiming that our faith calls us to go beyond a safe place:
into action, into vulnerability and onto the streets.
I share this conversation with you because despite our liturgical choice
I am convinced that there is a place for holy anger at injustice and disparity.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, it is not the religious act that makes the Christian,
but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.
Such participation is a way of love that unifies, makes whole,
and lifts up what is fragmented and incomplete.
So do we reflect the life of Jesus,
who reached out to those on the margins and brought them into his community.
So do we act out our inheritance as co-creators with God,
divinely empowered to act in the name of the One who is Love.
I hope you will take time this week to attend the annual Simpson march and service,
details of which are on the flyer with today’s bulletin.
I think you will find it both moving and meaningful,
perhaps even provocative and motivational.
But whether or not you can attend, I hope you will take the time
to think seriously about the issues I have raised here so briefly,
to pray about what you, what we might do,
and then to bring your ideas to the wider community
that together we might make a difference for the least of these,
members of Christ’s family and our brothers and sisters.
Just as Mark uses the word “immediately,”
in the gospels Jesus always uses the word “today:”
“Today you are healed…”
“Today this has been fulfilled…”
It announces the presence of God acting in the midst of creation.
Now that word, that time comes to us.
Today we must take action to heal the world around us.