Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Sermon for February 14 / Lent 2

Storms and Stigmas
February 14, 2016
One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s cross to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and started out. As they sailed across, Jesus settled down for a nap. But soon a fierce storm came down on the lake. The boat was filling with water, and they were in real danger. The disciples went and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” When Jesus woke up, he rebuked the wind and the raging waves. Suddenly the storm stopped and all was calm. Then he asked them, “Where is your faith?” The disciples were terrified and amazed. “Who is this man?” they asked each other. “When he gives a command, even the wind and waves obey him!” ~ Luke 8:22-25 NLT (See also, Luke 4:1-13)
Have you ever wondered if Jesus was mentally ill? If we take some of the stories of the gospel as vignettes that capture actual events in the life of Jesus, and we examine them through a modern psychological lens, Jesus can look like he has some mental health challenges.

Take the story we heard about the temptation of Jesus. He is alone in the desert, without food for 40 days.  Have you ever wondered what the effect of that is on the body? One study tracked an anonymous monk who undertook a 40-day fast, with no food intake at all except for daily communion, about 60 calories per day. After thoroughly measuring every baseline of health before the man started fasting, researchers took daily and weekly measurements until day 36. During this time, the monk lost around 34.5 pounds, and developed symptoms of severe low blood pressure, to the point where he needed almost half an hour just to stand up in the morning. The monk stopped his fast on day 36 when profound weakness interfered with his daily activities in the monastery. Now imagine Jesus in this compromised state -- hungry, thirsty, physically fatigued, emotionally exposed -- when he starts having conversations with the devil, who mystically transports Jesus from the desert to the ramparts of the Temple in Jerusalem and entices Jesus to hurl himself to the ground for God’s glory to be shown.

Can you imagine with me an alternative reading of this text? Can you imagine Jesus alone in the wilderness, fasting for 40 days, realizing that if he follows through on his plan to oppose the Roman occupation and preach subversive love, he will be killed? Can you imagine Jesus indulging a fantasy in which he wrestles with suicide instead of going through with the torture and death that he will face?

Or, consider the story of the calming of the storm. As Luke tells the story, Jesus and the disciples are on a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. A violent squall explodes. Wind and waves flood the boat. Most of the disciples are fishermen. They know bad weather. They know the ins and outs of that lake. Even they are afraid of drowning. And Jesus just sleeps, like a gentle baby being rocked to sleep. Can you imagine a scenario with me where Jesus is so exhausted from the demands of his ministry, so tired and worn out, maybe even depressed, that not even a storm at sea can rouse him from sleep? Or, what if Jesus had acute hypersomnia, or excessive daytime sleepiness? The frightened disciples finally get Jesus to wake up. He seems annoyed, calming the storm, maybe so he can go back to sleep. Commentators always tell us this story is a reminder that Jesus brings peace to the chaos of the seas and the chaos of our minds – that Jesus removes fear from both. But, what if that story has its roots in a real experience of emotional fatigue or depression within Jesus himself?

It may be offensive to you to think about Jesus as suffering from mental illness. If that’s the case, I wonder if it’s because we have so stigmatized mental illness, we need to protect ourselves and our saviors from it. Why would it be so appalling to think that some of our most inspirational forebears might have experienced mental health illness? Why is it that we believe God cannot or will not work through people with mental health challenges? Do we think that mental illness is a condition that makes us less able to do God’s work, or unable to participate in worship meaningfully? Does mental illness somehow disqualify us from doing God’s work of building peaceable communities and establishing lives of compassionate justice?

And who just who do we think “these people” are? Statistics show us that one in four people will suffer from mental health illness during their lives. That figure is based on those who go for help; the true figure is likely to be even higher. That means in a congregation of 100 worshippers, at least 24 of us currently experience mental health issues. Mental health and illness are part of human living; they are often caused by life experience such as grief, trauma and loss. Breakdowns happen to most us and none of us should have to suffer in silence for fear of what others might think or say.

  • 1 out of 100 of us will live with schizophrenia.
  • 3 out of 100 of us will live with bi-polar disorder.
  • 7 will experience major depression.
  • 7 more will have an anxiety disorders.
  • 11 of us, about one half of those who struggle with chronic mental illness, began suffering by the time they were 14 years old. We often don’t accept the fact that our children and youth are struggling until their suffering has gone on far too long.

I’m sure there are many of us here today who know about mental illness from our own personal experience, or through living with a family member with mental illness, or through professional involvement with clients and co-workers.  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 understanding and appropriate responses, just like any other condition from which we might suffer.

Here is what’s not helpful: Those who suffer don’t need people saying, “Pull yourself together,” or, “I’m so sorry for you.” And those who suffer do not need politicians blaming all episodes of public violence on mental illness, either. Certainly, the public conversation around gun control and mental illness, in which certain politicians place the blame for incidents of gun violence on the mentally ill, has not helped encourage people to talk about their own mental illness or to lend a hand to those in emotional crisis. A 2013 study out of the Johns Hopkins says that efforts to imply that all, or even most, incidents of gun violence are at the hands of the mentally ill only serves to increase the stigma directed towards those who suffer. Reports also indicate that the vast majority of gun violence is committed by people who are not mentally ill.

No wonder people are afraid. Stigmatizing mental illness in such a way – making it something dangerous, something to fear – isolates those who struggle and prevents people from getting help.

If we are following the teaching of Jesus – who suffers our human troubles and meets us where we are in life, who reaches out to us in empathy, in love and healing – then churches like CCC will be places of welcome, friendship and acceptance. It is our ministry to educate ourselves about mental health and to make sure that our welcome is appropriate and that no-one who enters our church experiences prejudice or feels stigmatized. 

Larry Duff brought the NAMI StigmaFree Pledge to my attention a couple of months ago. I printed information about it in the bulletin. I think committing to this pledge will help us fulfill our aim of being a church that welcomes people of all abilities. The pledge has three steps:

  • Educate Yourself and Others 
  • See the Person and Not the Illness 
  • Take Action on Mental Health Issues

Our mental health care systems have been in crisis for far too long and often keep treatment and recovery out of the hands of many who need it. It used to be that only the rich could afford to get mental health care. Today, health insurers are required to cover the treatment of mental illnesses. The opportunity to talk with a caring professional who understands how the brain works, the chance to take medications that provide some relief from emotional pain, and the availability of emergency care to prevent harm to self or others are effective resources. Because of huge advances in public perception and brain research, people who otherwise might not be able to get out of bed are living, working, loving, and finding meaning in their lives.

I’ve read many online testimonies of Christians who talk about their mental health struggles. I appreciate one person who wrote these words: 
“Every time I face that dark abyss of suffering and survive to see another day, I see God’s faithfulness to me even more clearly. If I had the power to control my own life, I would avoid everything unpleasant or uncomfortable, but then I would never see God’s power to overcome evil and to shine light in the darkness. If I never suffered, I would never have any reason to grow or change. If I didn’t have these hard times, I wouldn’t have the chance to exercise my faith and grow in hope.”
She goes on to write: 
“I consider my mental illness to be a part of a spiritual gift of suffering … With every season of pain, I grow in compassion for others, in appreciation of God’s mercy and in the strength God gives me to handle pain and discomfort. As my capacity for suffering grows, so does my capacity to feel joy, peace and every other fruit of God’s Holy Spirit. God has used what, on the surface, seems like pointless and unredeemable misery and has turned it into my secret strength. God has used my illness and weakness to slowly and purposefully mold me into the beloved reflection of my creator, the ‘new creation’ that [God] intends me to be.”
She concludes with these words: 
“I don’t know why I am depressed. I don’t know why I am only apathetic when the sadness is gone. I don’t know why I am once again disgusted to be in my own skin. I don’t know why I am still fighting the same fight I have since as long as I can remember. I don’t know why I am so ready to give up. I don’t know why I am happiest when I am alone. I don’t know why I am having so much trouble finishing a single task. But I do know that I am not alone in my struggle. I know that there are others like me who don’t know what they need to get better or how others can help or why they feel the way they do. I know that bad things happen to good people and I know that just because you have a bad day it doesn’t mean you’re having a bad life. I know that tomorrow holds endless possibilities and that my future is but a few breaths away … I know that Christ loves me the same as he does a healthy person and the same as people who may be [sicker] that I am. I know that there is hope in a world so seemingly bleak. I know that there is calm before the storm but also that the storm wears itself out. I know that I have made it this far and I can make it one more day.”
All in the Family: Faith Issues for Families Dealing with Addiction by Rita B. Hays, p 127

Monday, February 8, 2016

Sermon for February 7, 2016

Dazzle and Drop
Transfiguration Day

He was raised in the North Country. The child of a young, poor mother, he was an ordinary boy who did not seem to draw much attention to himself. Deep inside, however, he knew he had a special purpose – a destiny to fulfill. He burst on the scene out of nowhere. People began to notice that there was something special about this young man. He had talent and charisma. He was gifted like no other. It wasn’t long before he started attracting crowds. Thousands came to see and listen to him. As his fame spread, some grew jealous of him. But his popularity only increased. His followers thought he was brilliant.

One day had a personal transformation. His appearance changed. From that moment on, he began to lose popularity. Those who once believed in him began to criticize him. They mocked him. Some were afraid of him. Some wished for older days. And yet, the young man continued to share his message in the face of unbelief. By now you’ve probably figured out who I’m talking about . . . Justin Bieber, the pop music sensation.

In today’s gospel reading, we hear about the transformation, affirmation and decline of another popular hero. Listen for the Word . . .
Jesus took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.) While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen. The next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met him. Luke 9:28-37
You’re drained. You’re tapped out. You have little energy to give others. We’ve all been there. Usually, after a little break, we revive and step back up to the plate. But what happens, when these feelings don’t go away? What happens when you just want to give up? If you have ever cared for an elderly parent or a sick child, or worked in health care or human services … or ministry … you might know what I’m talking about. Sometimes caregivers just give up. It’s called compassion fatigue. It refers to the exhaustion that takes a person over and causes a decline in one’s ability to experience joy and care for others. Over time, your ability to care for others erodes through overuse of your skills of compassion.

Compassion fatigue also affects us when we hear news of disasters, or mass shootings, or police brutality. Or whenever there’s a long-running news story that shows no signs of resolution. Viewers will tune out the most compelling story if it never changes.

Compassion fatigue happens when we wake up and we don't feel like checking the news. Isn’t there enough pain within ten miles of our homes to last us a lifetime? I could probably spend two or three hours a day just praying for the crushing needs of people I know. So how can I shoulder the rest of the world’s problems? Sometimes I think about the pain all around, and all I can do is sit and put my bleary face into my cupped hands in utter bewilderment.

In a way, the story of the transfiguration is a story about compassion fatigue. Imagine Jesus, seeking to be alone on the mountaintop. He thinks of what awaits him in Jerusalem. A foreboding pain stabs his wrists. He looks at his followers. They have no idea. He speaks of suffering; they think of conquering. He speaks of sacrifice; they think of celebration. He talks of wholeness, and all they want are more miracles. They think they hear. They think they see. But they don’t. Part of him knew it would be like this. And part of him never knew it would be so bad. Part of him wonders, Would it be so bad to give up? He has given his best and what does he have? A ragged band of good-hearted followers who are destined to fall flat on promises they can’t keep. Only God really knows the cost of the struggle. So Jesus sits down and puts his bleary face into cupped hands and prays. It’s all he can do.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it helper? You thought you could save the world one person at a time. You saw where you could best demonstrate your gifts of compassion, and you went there. But now you are tired, questioning your motives, feeling drained and useless, wondering when relief will come, kicking yourself for not having a back-up plan, resenting that you are the only one doing the work.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it, dreamer, when the sharp rocks of reality cut your feet, breaking your stride . . . breaking your heart. And you found the role of the cynic was less costly than the role of the visionary?

Listen to what happens next. Jesus dazzles the disciples. For just a moment, radiance pours from Jesus. For a few minutes, the burden of humanity is lifted. As Jesus prepares himself for the work of death, two people from the past suddenly show up: Moses the lawgiver whose grave no one knew; Elijah the prophet who side-stepped death in a fiery chariot. The one who faces death is reminded that the grave is powerless. The One who feels weary is soon reminded that the weariness will soon pass.

And then, from the belly of the clouds, a Voice speaks: “This is my Son, chosen and loved. Listen to him.”

I think that could be our experience, too. God’s light reveals our need to be loved, our disappointment with ourselves, our shame and frustration, our deepest fears, our isolation and emptiness. In the transfiguring light of God, there is nowhere to hide. We stand stripped and vulnerable so we learn who we really … chosen and loved people of God. We are deeply treasured, fully accepted, and given the hope of a better world. God’s crazy in love with you. God thinks you are magnificent. When we are lost and weary, just when we are ready to sit on the sidelines and give up, God fills us with dazzling glory. God offers renewed hope, clearer vision, and mountaintop dreams.

The disciples, as usual, are scared – gripped by terror. And then , it’s over – except for one more thing. Luke says, the next day they had to come down the mountain. Show’s over. Time to pack up get back to work. A boy in the valley needs to be healed. Some disciples need to learn how to move from fear to faith. A cross waits in Jerusalem.

Our transformation is not complete until we drop back down to do God’s work back on earth. Fear Not. Have courage. Catch the vision. Spread the light. Let the God of suffering love lead you to the places where those who are broken cry out for wholeness. Listen to the call of those aching for justice. You won’t have to look for long or listen very hard. Let your own wounds lead you those who need healing.

Simon Bailey was an Anglican priest in a small traditional mining village in Yorkshire, England. He knew about struggling in the valley –he died of AIDS in 1995. But he also knew about the brilliance of God’s coming Kingdom.  Simon Bailey had a mountain top dream of God’s inclusive realm of love and peace. Listen to the words he wrote not long before his death:
I’m dreaming about a church of sensitivity and openness,
…of healing and welcome.
I’m dreaming about a community of friends
that celebrates differences and diversity and variety,
a community that is forgiving, cherishing, wide open.
I dream of women and men
who minister life and laughter and love;
…healing & harmony & hope;
I dream of the clear panorama of the vision of light
right at the top of the mountain.
How did a priest dying of AIDS fare in a traditional Yorkshire village? Well, the villagers received him with open arms. They set up care teams to help him. They wore scarlet ribbons to show the world their solidarity. No longer just a mountain top vision of the future, they became a community transfigured by compassion.

We are called to help create a world where the meek will come out on top; where the hungry go to the front of the food line; where the powerful wash the feet of the homeless; where children are protected and life is cherished. We actively promote wholeness, inclusion, and tolerance for all people, no matter who they are or where they come from, or how they got here. We work for justice, seek peace, give ourselves away in service to others, love our enemies, show respect to elders, love one another and honor ourselves.

Transfiguration Day turns us towards Lent. We have journeyed up the mountain to be reminded of God’s love. Now we drop down with Christ to a world of suffering and death. In that spirit, I close with poem from Mary Oliver called “When Death Comes.” Perhaps this can be our prayer as we journey down the mountain with Jesus.
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I made my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Sermon for September 16, 2018

A Journey and a Return After this, the Lord chose 72 more followers. He sent them out in groups of two. He sent them ahead of him int...