Sermon: Signs on the Earth Below

Sunday 20 May 2018
The Feast of Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21

GeneralMHFactsToday is the Feast of Pentecost. It is the fiftieth and final day of the Season of Easter. Fifty days. A week of weeks. During this season we have been spending our time with the Book of Acts, the story of the formation of the early church in the wake of Jesus’s death and resurrection. We have heard about the early church sharing its possessions so that no one was in need. We have heard about the controversy Peter and John created by using the name of Jesus to heal a disabled man in the court of the Jerusalem temple. We have heard about Philip having a theological conversation with a high-ranking Ethiopian official, a conversation that opened him to the life-giving grace of Jesus. We have heard how Peter broke the biblical rules by consorting with Gentiles because the Holy Spirit told him not to exclude people who have been included by God. And last week we rewound back to the beginning of Acts to hear how Matthias was appointed as an apostle to replace Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus.

Pentecost is the next story after that. It’s been fifty days since Jesus’s resurrection. It’s a major religious festival in Jerusalem. For hundreds of years, Judea has been conquered by every new empire that rose up: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Ptolemys, the Romans. And each time a new army marched in, Jews were displaced. Now they’re scattered all over the known world. They have made new lives for themselves. They have settled into their communities. Generations have passed. They don’t speak Hebrew any more: they speak all of the different languages of the world.

But on important festival days, Jews from all over the world make pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship at the temple. Most wouldn’t come every year. But, if they could afford to, most would try to make the journey at least once in their lifetime. Pentecost is one of those festivals, and Jews from everywhere are gathered to worship.

And on this particular Pentecost, as Jews from all over the world are gathered, something remarkable happens. The Spirit of God comes in the form of flames of fire, and the disciples speak the word of the gospel, and everyone is able to hear in their own language.

That’s quite an impressive miracle. And there are a variety of responses to it. Luke tells us that some were surprised. Others were amazed. Still others were bewildered or perplexed.

But not everyone. Some jeered. Some were detractors. Who do these Galileans think they are, anyway? Their probably just drunk, or crazy. Drunk or crazy, and therefore not to be trusted, not to be believed. The power of stigma kept those jeering persons from seeing the power of God’s Spirit at work among them.

I’ve been spending a lot of time telling you about the liturgical calendar lately. But there are things happening in the secular calendar, as well. This month is Mental Health Awareness Month. I was at Pacific Lutheran University last weekend, at the conference of the Society of Biblical Literature, and as I was walking around campus between sessions, I saw several signs highlighting the importance of mental health as a part of overall health and trying to educate students and staff about mental illness and how to seek treatment.

In our public discourse, mental health often comes up in the context of mass shootings, like the one two days ago in a high school in Santa Fe, Texas. Keeping guns out of the hands of people with mental illness seems to be a common suggestion for preventing such tragedies. People with mental illness are thought to be more prone to violence than the general population, and people who are violent are thought to be mentally ill.

But it’s not actually true. It’s a myth. The truth is that people with mental illness are no more likely to be violent than any other person. Let me say that again. People with mental illnesses are not more violent than people without mental illnesses. It is stigma that tells us otherwise. But that does not mean that mental illness has no correlation with violence. People with mental illness are not more violent than anyone else, but they are four times more likely to be victims of violence. Having a mental illness does not mean that you will be more violent, but it does mean that you are more likely to suffer violence. People tend to be scared of those who are mentally ill, but it isn’t a fear based in reality, it is a fear born of stigma.

So let’s address a few more myths. Here’s one: mental health conditions are fairly rare. The truth is that 1 in 5 Americans experiences mental illness, and in any given year, 1 in 25 Americans experiences severe mental illness that substantially interferes with or limits major life activities. Here’s another myth: mental illness is caused by personal weakness. The truth is that mental illness is an actual, biological condition that can be effected by biological, genetic, and environmental factors. Having a mental illness does not mean that you are weak, and it does not mean that you just need to be tougher. What you need is treatment and support. Another myth: you’re just sad, you’re not depressed. The truth is that depression is not something that can be willed away. You can’t just cheer up or shake it off. It effects the biological functioning of our bodies. But there are many forms of effective treatment for depression. Another myth: people with mental illness can’t handle work or school. The truth is that with effective treatment, people with mental illnesses have jobs, go to school, and are active members of their communities. Myths like these contribute to the stigma and exclusion that alienates people experiencing mental illness and their families.

And too often, the church has been a source of that stigma. We have associated mental illness with sin, piling guilt on to the heavy load that persons with mental illness already bear. We have cultivated a culture of shame around mental illness, in which people are afraid to reveal their struggles, afraid to seek help, afraid to do all the things that might lead to healing because acknowledging that they have a mental illness is shameful. It leads to exclusion, alienation, a lack of trust—when what the person desperately needs is inclusion, caring support, and a spirit of honesty.

Despite the prevalence of mental illness, its presence frequently is a shame-filled secret, left unacknowledged and often untreated. Or its exposure to daylight leads to isolation and alienation of everyone affected…Without human connection and communal support, an alienated person is subject to further assaults on dignity. Unique and gifted people are reduced to ‘patients,’ whose only identity is an illness. Instead of honest appraisal of the complex causes of mental illness, which leads to a deeper understanding of the person, social categorization leads to identifying the alienated person simply as ‘mentally ill.’ Their families often are blamed.”

We didn’t learn that kind of stigma from Jesus. Jesus cared for the whole health of the people he met. “All aspects of health—physical, mental, and spiritual—were of equal concern to Jesus Christ, whose healing touch reached out to mend broken bodies, minds, and spirits with one common purpose: the restoration of well-being and renewed communion with God and neighbor.” (United Methodist Book of Resolutions, ❡3303)

Both of our denominations have strong social statements about mental illness and our obligation as Christians to be agents of understanding, care, and treatment. I’ve been quoting from them a bit already. But here are a few more words on the subject from the official doctrinal statements of The United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

“The body of Christ is incomplete if people experiencing mental illness are not integrated as a visible part of the whole. The call challenges the ELCA to be a community seeking understanding that encourages individuals to pursue treatment, comforts them in their suffering, and supports them in their treatment and recovery.” “John Wesley’s ministry was grounded in the redemptive ministry of Christ with its focus on healing that involved spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical aspects… His witness of love to those in need of healing is our model for ministry to those suffering from mental illness.” “Seeking help should be encouraged, and not seen as a sign of weakness.” “No one can weather mental illness alone, whether that be the person diagnosed, the family member, or the practitioner. This church is called to challenge outdated views of mental illness and foster loving practices within our communities. In a society that stresses self-sufficient individualism and is ashamed of vulnerability, congregations and other ministry sites can be communities where illness and living with limitations are simply part of our communal reality. Jesus’ ministry and that of the earliest Christian communities exemplify this communal response.” “As Christ was not afraid to be vulnerable, or to show his wounds, the church when living faithfully as the body of Christ is not afraid to be vulnerable and wounded. When people with mental illness are present as full members, as their true selves, the church as the body of Christ is both wounded and authentic. Their willingness to be present as vulnerable is a gift and is itself a form of service, 42 and a reminder to the church that true freedom is found in service.” “Science uncovers more every day about the causes of mental illness, yet sufferers and their families still experience the dis-grace of encountering mental illness myths and misconceptions. Though research shows genetic and biological causes are at the root of mental illnesses, many still believe sufferers just need to “think positive” or work harder to “snap out of it” when what they really need is treatment, therapy and support.” “The church as the body of Christ, is called to a ministry of salvation in its broadest understanding, which includes both healing and reconciliation, or restoring wholeness both at the individual and communal levels.”

Two thousand years ago at Pentecost, stigma prevented people from seeing the movement and gifts of the Holy Spirit. They saw people that seemed to be strange, acting in a way that they did not understand, and so they marginalized them, discounted them, treated them like they were crazy. Stigma of another kind alienates us from the movement of God’s Spirit today. It creates a veil of shame and silence that quite literally costs lives.

There is power in breaking the silence, though there is also risk. A study conducted by the ELCA showed that about 20% of clergy suffer from depression. I know of many of my colleagues who do. I am among them. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 25 and in seminary, though the signs were there at least ten years before then. It’s funny, I never thought twice about going to a doctor for a routine colds, even though the prescription was always the same: you probably don’t need antibiotics, just rest and plenty of fluids. But there was no shame in asking for help. But the idea of seeking help for feelings of overwhelming despair—it would have never occurred to me.

For me, it was wrapped up in feelings of unworthiness, sinfulness, and shame. And that feeling of shame, that sense that there was something deeply wrong with me, it created a kind of feedback loop that pushed me lower and lower. At its worst, I was certain that my very existence was harmful to the people around me, that the world would be noticeably better off without me.

Fortunately, Melissa was there to pick me up, to get me the help I needed when I wouldn’t have been able to do it on my own. Those of you who have experienced it know that depression hurts. It physically hurts. And the simplest of tasks can seem completely overwhelming. I couldn’t have faced it alone. And I didn’t. I had family and friends who supported me, encouraged me, had patience with me. I had a pastoral supervisor who offered me nothing but grace and compassion. I had professors and school administrators who found a way to ease my load while I focussed on getting better. I had people who surrounded me in prayer. And I had the help of excellent mental health professionals who provided me the care I needed to heal.

I share this with you today in the hope that my story will in some small way break the power of shame and stigma that surrounds mental illness. I want you to know—for yourselves, for your families, for your friends—that there is no shame in mental illness and there is no shame in asking for help. It is not a sign of weakness. In fact, seeking treatment can be a tremendous act of courage.

Modern health care, including mental health care, is a gift of God. We would never say that getting surgery for a clogged artery is a sign of weakness. We would never say that taking insulin for diabetes demonstrates a lack of faith. Neither should we say that seeing a counsellor or a psychologist or psychiatrist is a sign of weakness, or that taking medication for a mental illness demonstrates a lack of faith.

We are all God’s children. And like our brother, Jesus, we all have wounds. Some wounds are visible, and some are not. But we all, in our brokenness, deserve respect, care, grace, and love. We all, in our brokenness, shine forth a part of God’s power. Let us not suffer in silence. Let us not be peddlers of stigma and shame. Instead, let us bear one another’s burdens. Let us be the community of understanding, grace, and love that God calls us to be. Let us be agents of God’s Holy Spirit, which moves among us and binds us together, so that we never face our struggles alone. Thanks be to God.

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