St. Matthew’s Sermon 05-21-2017

St. Matthew’s Sermon 05-21-2017

Mental Health Sunday

Acts 17:22-31, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21 *[Luke 8:26-39]

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God. Amen.

Today, the third Sunday of May, is assigned by the United Church of Christ as “Mental Health Sunday”; a day to raise awareness, increase understanding, and promote compassion in the many ways humans struggle and suffer with mental health problems. Hence, the reason for my decision to change the Gospel reading for today.

In my young years, literally as far back as I can remember, I was no stranger to people with poor mental health. Though I don’t remember him, except perhaps having met him once when delivering Christmas cookies from our Church to Pennhurst, I had a cousin with Down syndrome. Immediately across the street where I grew up was a boy my age with Cerebral Palsy; he had a little brother with Down syndrome who wasn’t sent away for ‘safe keeping’. And I knew the father of these two to have had a “nervous breakdown” as it was called then; a general term for what, in his case, would be more precisely diagnosed today as “acute stress disorder”.

There were a few more cases I knew of but in that era, the children didn’t go to school and the adults’ temporary problems weren’t talked about. Needless to say, my exposure was limited and my understanding was nil. It is this lack of awareness and understanding that “Mental Health Sunday” calls us to address and is what I will do today.


For me, as I grew older, I did become more aware of the vast range of mental health issues. Through adult relationships I learned that far more people than I previously thought struggled with such problems. I learned that poor mental health wasn’t the black and white of ‘good’ health on one side and utter craziness on the other; that there’s a lot of grey area in between. And I learned that, more often than not, the struggles are not obvious to the observer.

In terms of range, besides the genetic abnormality of Down Syndrome and the brain injury leading to Cerebral Palsy that I mentioned earlier, I also witnessed the illnesses of Alcohol/Substance Abuse, Alcohol/Substance Dependence, (they are two different things) Anxiety and Phobia Disorders, Adolescent and Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Depression, Eating Disorders, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Schizophrenia. And I saw each of these in varying degrees of severity from the barely noticeable to the completely debilitating.

While witnessing all of these in people I knew well, I learned that not one of them are chosen by the sufferer. Now, with things like genetic abnormalities and brain injury, that goes without saying. But how often have you heard someone say that Alcohol and Substance Abuse or Dependence are the result of “bad choices” made by the sufferer? Or that those struggling with depression “just need to pick themselves up and get on with life”? But that’s not the case; in every one there are unseen physiological and / or psychological matters at play including, but not limited to, predisposition, life learned behavior, social pressures, and early life trauma such as physical and emotional abuse or suppressed traumatic experiences. These are influences, not choices.

And with witnessing these I learned that there is treatment. Sometimes there are varying degrees of success but there is hope for the afflicted. But, they have to seek the help they need and this part is a major problem in our society today. With all the new understanding and the breakthroughs in treatment, there is still a stigma surrounding the many manifestations of poor mental health and this keeps far too many sufferers from seeking the help they need. Listen to that again, it is probably the most important thing I will say to you today; the stigma surrounding the many manifestations of poor mental health keeps far too many sufferers from seeking the help they need. And I’ll add to that; it too often keeps those who care about the sufferer from encouraging them, helping them, get the treatment they need.


Now, I’ve spent more than a few minutes telling you about my encounters with mental health disorders, and I’ve given you what little I learned about the issue. But, even after paying attention to the world around me through most of my life, I still had little understanding; I was still unable to move beyond the fear of those who suffer (as taught to me in my youth) to actually feeling compassion for them much less be a friend and an advocate for them. Not until I became educated.

 My education came in two ways, both of which were hard; one I recommend, and the other I do not.

The one I do not recommend is personal experience. For me it began when I acquired some minimal brain injury from the event of being electrocuted (coincidentally 29 years ago today). One result of that injury was memory loss which, over time, was improved and is now minimal. Another part of it is a diminished ability to recognize the need to, and lessened desire to, fit into the molds of societal expectations.

The memory loss is frustrating at worst, I can still function well. But the struggle to happily fit into social norms led to serious depression. Looking at the terrible rate of suicide in our nation as the result of depression, I could see that I was not, am not, alone. Fortunately for me I had the required combination of loving people to encourage me get the help I needed and the previous knowledge to destigmatize the need for that help, allowing me to go into psychotherapy and get a medication that worked for me.  Although I am not ‘cured’, my standing before you today is proof of successful treatment.

Now, the method of education I do recommend. That is simply ‘exposure’; allowing yourself to see, acknowledge, and dwell with those who suffer and work with their needs. Simple, I said, and it really is once you get past the fear of what you don’t understand. For me, this required facing my own fears and seeking information.

Knowing this was a weakness in myself while training for pastoral care I did not avoid the mentally ill, I delved in whole heartedly, choosing to work in a psych hospital as one part of my clinical education, and choosing to work in the dementia care unit of a care facility in another part of my clinical education. With this came, not only book learning but also hands (and heart) on work with a great variety of mental health patients and their loved ones.

In this work I did get past my fears and learned to be comfortable sitting with people living in a world far different than mine. I became comfortable with those who seemed perfectly normal one day and completely delusional the next. And I learned to be with them in their reality rather than insisting that they came to my reality; assuring the Alzheimer’s patient that her husband didn’t forget to pick her up after school, he’s just stuck in traffic; assuring the schizophrenic that he is in a military facility and there is no way Jimmy Hoffa was getting past the guards to kill him; assuring the battered woman that what the Bible says about divorce does not condemn her for leaving her abusive husband 45 years ago… Just a few examples.


In the coming months, right here at St. Matthew’s, we are planning some community programs; some of them have to do with mental health; and the first of those is planned to happen in July. It will be led by a professional and will be on the first required step in understanding which is, as mentioned earlier “destigmatizing mental health problems”.

I strongly encourage you to participate in this event especially if it scares you. To reinforce that thought, look at today’s Gospel reading;

Demon possession is, of course, the ancient explanation for mental illness. The man was possessed by a “Legion” of demons; he had many mental problems. In their lack of understanding, the local community tried, unsuccessfully, to restrain him; a clue to their fears. But what does Jesus do when he meets this fearful man? He talks to him, he shows compassion and the result is the man is healed; soon found sitting at Jesus’ feet in his right mind. But then what happens? The local people are afraid; they’re more afraid of Jesus than they were of the possessed man; so afraid that they ask him to leave. In doing so they exposed their own mental illness, their phobia, the unwarranted fear of what they did not understand. And, they exposed another illness, that of preferring the devil they know over that which they don’t know.

Let that sink in… Amen.



*For today’s sermon I’ve elected to use a Gospel reading different from that assigned by the Lectionary. I read from…

Luke 8:26-39

26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”– 29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.


Acts 17:22-31

17:22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.
17:23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.
17:24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,
17:25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.
17:26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live,
17:27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him–though indeed he is not far from each one of us.
17:28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’
17:29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.
17:30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,
17:31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
Psalm 66:8-20
66:8 Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard,
66:9 who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.
66:10 For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried.
66:11 You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs;
66:12 you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.
66:13 I will come into your house with burnt offerings; I will pay you my vows,
66:14 those that my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.
66:15 I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings, with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams; I will make an offering of bulls and goats. Selah
66:16 Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for me.
66:17 I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled with my tongue.
66:18 If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.
66:19 But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer.
66:20 Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.

1 Peter 3:13-22
3:13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?
3:14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated,
3:15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you;
3:16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.
3:17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.
3:18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,
3:19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison,
3:20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.
3:21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you–not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
3:22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

John 14:15-21
14:15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
14:16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.
14:17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
14:18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.
14:19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.
14:20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.
14:21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”