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This morning, we commemorate Mental Health Sunday.

We will also receive new members and celebrate baptisms during the 11:00 a.m. service.

You can follow along with today’s bulletin here.

Due to technical difficulties, part of the video where the sermon is given is unavailable. We apologize for the inconvenience. Please find the sermon text below.

I suppose there had been signs from the beginning of our relationship that my ex-partner struggled with mental health challenges. There were prolonged periods of sadness that came seemingly out of nowhere, during which she would often spend her day in bed watching television, sleeping, or even crying. During those moments, there was nothing I could do would convince her to get up and get out of the house for a while. After a day or two, she would usually bounce back, tough as nails, ready to take on the world once again. At the time, I did not really understand the difference between the normal sadness that we all experience from time to time, in response to life’s ups and downs, and the periods of what I now know were depression, that she was going through.

It would take time for me to learn her story, a story of childhood trauma and abuse. Pieces began coming together and slowly I began to make the connection between her behavior and her mental health. Over time, new symptoms would emerge. She began to experience crippling panic attacks and exhibit paranoid behavior. There were times when she was almost childlike and other times when she was just plain mean. Once a meticulous dresser, she no longer seemed to take pride in her appearance and the strong person that I once knew seemed to melt away before my eyes.

From my own experience as a caregiver for someone with mental health challenges, I learned that loneliness and isolation can be part of the journey. One of the most painful aspects of this experience was watching as her friends and family slowly began slipping away until I became her sole caregiver. Now that I have had the opportunity to learn from other caregivers, I understand that many of the challenges that I faced are common when caring for a loved one with a mental health challenge. Many caregivers express their frustration as they try to navigate through a mental health care system that often does not seem to listen or have answers. It is common to go from doctor to doctor, searching for answers, often walking away feeling more frustrated and alone.

Over time, my life changed, and my ex-partner and I parted ways, but the experiences that I had as I tried to help her navigate the murky waters of mental illness stayed with me. As someone who is gay, I know how transformational it was for me to find liberation in a church community, that accepted me unconditionally for who I am. It is such a gift to find the loving embrace of a church community that lives out God’s call to love your neighbor without question. It was because of my experience of finding acceptance and belonging, that I knew that the welcome of this church could be extended even wider to embrace people with mental health challenges and their caregivers.

Probably one of the most common experiences shared by caregivers is the difficulty finding acceptance and belonging in a supportive community due to the stigma associated with mental illness. During the worst of my experiences with my ex-partner, I would often come to church and sit in one of the pews, unable to speak of what was happening, to anyone. How do you talk about such things, when they are not part of the everyday conversation of a community; when the subject of mental illness carries so much stigma and misunderstanding? There were days when my ex-partner was doing well and would have benefitted from belonging to a community that accepted her just as she was. However, she was raised in a faith community which associated mental health challenges with sinful behavior, a sign of weakness of her character. I could not convince her that the church was a safe place for her to be.

According to the World Health Organization, one in 4 people will be affected by a mental health challenge in their lifetime. It is estimated that currently 450 million people worldwide are living with a diagnosable mental health challenge. Every week, there are people in our pews who have depression, bi-polar disorder, anxiety, grief, stress, addiction or a myriad of other mental health challenges. Many suffer in silence, afraid that their secret will be discovered by family, friends, or coworkers. Others serve as caregivers; family members and friends who try to help navigate through a mental health system that is broken who also may feel like they cannot share their story.

In addition to those already in our pews, there are other people who suffer mental health challenges who are hesitant to enter the doors of the church. Many times, this is because they have been convinced by the theology that still exists in some congregations that their illness is the result of demonic possession or sinful behavior. The stigma created by such beliefs is a dehumanizing barrier that often sets those with mental health challenges apart from the rest of the community, based on societal norms of mental wellness. As theologian, John Swinton explains: “In the minds of the media and the general public, people with mental health problems frequently ‘cease being persons.’ Instead they become identified by their pathologies-schizophrenics, or manic depressives, terms that substitute their primary identity as human beings made in God’s image and passionately loved by God, for a socially constructed way of being that seriously limits their life possibilities.”

Jesus models for his disciples’ barrier-breaking friendship, the type of friendship that dissolves stigma, revealing the humanity of the person and the gifts that they were given by God to share. Swinton describes the friendship of Jesus best when he says:

Jesus’ friendships were always personal, as opposed to instrumental, primarily aimed at regaining the dignity and personhood of those whom society had rejected and depersonalized.

The Gospels are rich in stories of Jesus’ freeing love that flows outward from his being, towards the edges of the margins, giving the oppressed new life, by pulling them towards the center of community. One such story of Jesus’ ministry that I find particularly relevant to the experience of those with mental health challenges is the story from this morning’s Gospel lesson. Legion’s behavior, what we would recognize today as untreated mental illness, caused him to be cast out of his community, away from any love, support, and care that he might receive. With no other options, he has been forced to live out his life in isolation, on the margins of society.

If Jesus had simply driven out the demons from this man’s body, this event would have been recorded as yet another miraculous healing. Instead, Jesus broke through the boundaries that separated this man from his community by restoring his dignity, ensuring that he was properly clothed, and restoring his sense of self-worth by giving him a job to perform. He sent Legion back into the community to proclaim the word. In this way, Jesus broke down the barrier to Legion’s full inclusion in the life of his community and let him know that he was an integral part of that community…It was where he belonged.

Had Legion remained an outcast, he would have been vulnerable, alone, and susceptible, once again to the return of the demons that had tormented him. Instead, he was transformed by Jesus’ healing and given new life and new opportunity to develop into the person that God meant him to be, through the friendship of Jesus that worked to restore his humanity. As the story of Legion illustrates, the boundary breaking love offered as genuine friendship by Jesus, breaks through stigma that separates people with mental health challenges from community, liberating them from isolation.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus continually demonstrated that each life in the community matters, extending a hand in friendship that moves beyond mere inclusion, towards truly belonging. In the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the shepherd leaves behind the ninety-nine sheep to search for the one member of the flock that has gone astray. At a glance, it seems rather preposterous to abandon the rest of the flock to chase after one that has gone missing. However, I agree with theologian Andrew Sung Park’s interpretation that this parable illustrates, that for Jesus, each member of the community has inherent worth. Park explains, “It doesn’t seem that the lost one is needed for the survival of the rest of the sheep. Christ, however, regards the lost one as indispensable for the rest, redefining the meaning of indispensability.”

If Jesus felt so strongly about the loss of one sheep, how would he feel if potentially 25 of his flock went missing due to mental health challenges, and another unknown number slipped away as their caregivers. And yet that is exactly what is at stake when people are made to feel as if they do not belong in a community due to the stigma of mental health. More than simply feeling included, belonging makes each person feel like they matter and that their absence tears away at the fabric of the community, making it incomplete. Quite simply, the church cannot be the church without each person feeling that they belong. It is this feeling of belonging that works to dissolve the barrier of stigma by destroying the loneliness and fear that stigma creates.

There is much work to be done to eliminate the stigma attached to mental illness. I believe that the church is a special place to begin these conversations and it is why I believe that the work being done within this church community is so important. It is here that we can work to deconstruct the bad theology that has often associated mental illness with sinfulness and demonic possession which serves to separate people from a God that loves them unconditionally. It is here that we can turn the page and offer an extravagant welcome to all of God’s children by removing the barriers and obstacles that seek to turn difference into exclusion. It is here that we can be the expression of the love of Jesus by reaching out our hands in friendship and being the community that Christ calls us to be. Finally, it is here that we can learn to be a community that moves beyond inclusion towards being a community where everyone belongs so that everyone who enters can feel like they have come home.

May it be so. Amen

© 2019 Coral Gables United Church of Christ
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