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Psalm 34:15-22 (The Inclusive Psalms translation)
Acts 11:1-9 (CEB translation)
In 2004, I was living in Edmond with Kathy and our then 20 month-old, Ian, and a brand new baby, Alec. I was working at Baptist Hospital as a project manager for a group of physicians and, inexplicably, had also started seminary. Soon I would be working 30 hours a week at the paying gig, studying for a Masters of Divinity, teaching a Bible Study class at Mayflower UCC, the church that was my home, and starting a new UCC church in Norman. I did also try to change some diapers and see my children from time to time. This was also the time period in which we had to hospitalize my mother during a mental health crisis.
This is not a story I have told from the pulpit before – the story of my mom’s struggle with depression that suddenly became a fight with mania – and I haven’t told it before not because there haven’t been opportunities, but because for the better part of my ministry, at every church I served, my mom was sitting on the second row. I didn’t want to tell that story with her there. Why is that? Well, in part I do think it would have embarrassed her, but it was also my fear for myself. Mental health is a very stigmatized thing in our culture, particularly in the church. What would it be like for people in the church to know that their pastor has a mother with “those” problems? Do they start re-reading my own eccentricities? Would I get branded and treated differently? And how did I process the shame that I didn’t want, but felt anyway? Of course, I was never ashamed of my mother, nor did I really think that little of the congregations I have served.
This month is Mental Health Awareness month, and the UCC, along with other denominations, is making an effort to spread good information and resources, as well as hope and strength. There is no way, of course, that I could speak on such a vast subject with any thoroughness at all without a sermon that would be, I assume, unacceptably long. There is, of course, the statistical reality that all of us will be touched by mental illness at some point in our lives, and that should be reason alone to educate ourselves. But there’s more. Part of our responsibility as an “open & affirming church” is to draw the circle wider, to open the doors that have been shut, so often by the very church culture of which we are a part, like it or not. We may think, “Hey, that’s not OUR church,” but the reality is that for many people out there, church is church. So we have to strive to make our difference known. And, truth be told, we are still somewhat reluctant to talk about mental health, even here at our church, whether it is our own, or that of a loved one. That reluctance makes it difficult to reach out, and perhaps keeps us from providing the kind of care we might with any other kind of illness.
We live, in some respects, in the same type of culture that Peter lived in, with hierarchies and the clear demarcation of “clean” and “unclean.” In Peter’s world, what gender you were, what physical characteristics you had, even what tribe you belonged to – all of which are out of your control – could make you clean or unclean. What food you ate, how you farmed, even what you wore could make you clean or unclean. Here in our world, any number of things can make you unclean – a second class citizen. Documentation, skin color, gender, gender expression, sexuality, class, prior convictions, to name a few…and, yes, mental illness.
If you are unclean, in this system we share with Peter, you are less than, discountable, even disposable. You might be unclean with a chance to get clean again, or you could be permanently unclean, meaning you were always less than, always discountable, always disposable. Think of felony convictions in our culture – do you ever really stop serving your time? Even after you are released from your sentence, voting restrictions, a curtailed freedom and an ever present “check the box” part of employment keep you from moving back into the clean category. When we don’t talk about it, when we don’t acknowledge how mistakes and bad decisions impact us all in different ways, we completely disable the process of renewal or reconciliation. And, in the case of mental illness or addiction, we don’t get a chance to acknowledge how our choices are impacted by the things that happen far beyond our control. In fact, we don’t get to talk about how little control we actually have, which is a much more difficult conversation to have.
That’s why it is so critical for us to talk about mental illness like we might talk about heart disease or cancer. While there are certainly choices we can make to decrease our factors in getting heart disease or cancer, when someone does get it, there are very few who would suggest that it’s their fault, or that they should just try harder. Yet we often do that with mental illness, in part because of our awareness – or lack thereof – of how it operates, and what can be done for treatment.
Maybe it’s more common to hear theology like we heard from the Psalm today, where God protects all those who need protection, and heals all wounds, delivers the endangered, defends the weak, but we know that’s not true. The Psalm is aspirational, not informational. It is a beacon to hope, not a descriptor of how things are. It helps us imagine a time in which things are better, one of the basic ingredients in healing. You have to have hope and you have to have truth.
Recently a colleague recounted a story about a pastor friend of his who served a big church and was a drug addict. It was secret for so long, and he tried to quit but never could beat it. Finally, more as an act of desperation than anything else, he admitted to his congregation that he had this illness, and it was only then that he found the support and ability to fight his addiction effectively. The quote from him that my colleague remembers is, “We are only as damaged as the things we keep secret.”
What happens for Peter on that rooftop is an eye-opening experience to say the least. It completely transforms his viewpoint, shifting his entire paradigm so fully that he almost sees a different God. He goes on to tell his fellow disciples that the work of Jesus is the work of disabling the clean and unclean system, understanding the extend of God’s Grace and the implications of that for us as individuals and for the world we create. It really is more than a simple re-classification of some things from one category to another. Peter’s dream – and his reaction to it – asks us to do our ownwork on the walls we bless and sanctify. For we might find out that they aren’t God’s walls at all. In fact, we might found out that God doesn’t build walls, we do, and God plays this whole game differently than we can even imagine.
The movement of the Spirit in the Book of Acts has an endgame, and that isn’t merely drawing the circle wider, though that it a good place to start. It’s about drawing it so wide that the circle becomes meaningless, thereby eliminating the circle altogether. It is that story which ought to shape our own hearts, and then, in turn, the way that we look at the world around us. Immigration, education, justice, healthcare, human rights, mental health – all of these issues ought to be shaped by the endless expansion of God’s Love, helping us see the world and each other as God sees us. As we move through this Sunday where we lift up those who struggle with mental illness, those who care for them and those impacted by mental illness – in other words as we lift ALL of us up – let this work be a chance to realize that the “them” we think are not “us” are one and the same – it’s just us.
Thanks be to God.