This is the last sermon I preached at Christ Church Stouffville on January 18, 2015. I had completed 10 weeks of sick leave and returned for one last Sunday before moving to another appointment to move closer to home and my mother as she was dealing with cancer. In it I tell about my experiences with mental illness and share some final farewell thoughts on the readings.
1 Sam 3:1–20
Ps 139:1–5, 12–17
Romans 8:18-28, 37-39
When I look back at the sermons I wrote 8, 12, 20 years ago, I am first of all very grateful for how much I have grown! My first listeners were so, so generous.
I also notice that, as I proclaimed each text and wrote my sermons, I had so much to say. That won’t surprise the clock watchers among you! What I mean is I wanted to preach about 6 sermons in one. I was amazed at how much was in the Scriptures as I unpeeled layer after layer and I just wanted to share it all.
I was able to restrain myself by remembering I have a full life of preaching ahead of me. If I don’t say it this time, it will still be there in three years’ time.
After 10 weeks out of the pulpit and away from the altar, I feel that same overwhelmed wonder. There is so much to say, so much I want to say, and just not enough time. So, I’ll keep it simple. What happened? What is happening? Some final thoughts.
When was the last time you went into a haunted house? Not a real one, one that is constructed so you follow a group through the rooms and you brush by gross feeling things and skeletons and witches come flying at you from nowhere. And you walk in knowing it’s all fake, and it’s completely safe and no ghouls are really going to jump inside your body and steal your soul. But…you are still scared before you even step inside the door from the anticipation of what is coming. And just as you are about to step over the threshold, someone trips and bumps into your shoulder and you are sure your body just separated from your skin and jumped 8 feet high! It’s irrational. It makes no sense.
And that’s the difference between being in a genuine, real situation that make any healthy person exhausted, or scared, or stressed or hurt and dealing with a mental illness.
That feeling you get when you walk through that haunted house, just starting to calm down and feel secure, and then the spiders fall on your head and you jump and then…you laugh because the spiders are plastic.
Well, 3 months ago, that’s how I felt when I went to the store, came home, got an email, had to send an email, go visit someone or go to a meeting. Except I didn’t laugh. I was just…scared.
Of course, like most of us, it didn’t occur to me that something was wrong until the physical symptoms started-not sleeping, not eating, hot and cold spells, pounding blood pressure. I saw a doctor and a specialist, and options were given, but none of them would do me any good without rest.
I am as guilty as imposing stigma on others as anyone, including myself. We talk about “just stress” as if it is normal, and everyone should expect to be stressed all the time. It’s not. We all endure, and isn’t it strange that now that we live in a world where we have so much knowledge about emotional and mental health, we still believe so many myths, that it isn’t real, that only weak people suffer from it, or strange people, or, just, people who don’t think the same way as us. We throw labels like personality disorder and bipolar and “mental” or “has issues” around as if we are all experts when, really, we are just trying to find a reason to dismiss someone who isn’t like us.
So, no wonder we don’t openly talk about our emotional and mental states with anyone but our closest loved ones, if at all. Mental illness is, in most ways, invisible. We look for signs to judge how well someone is. It is usually with good intentions. But the only way to really know how someone is doing is to ask and know that, like with physical illness, you may only be told what the person wants to tell. And that’s ok.
How I spent my time on sick leave is complicated and, frankly, pretty dull. Suffice it to say the rest and medical support were huge to my healing. I was also uplifted by so many messages, calls and prayers from all of you. If I needed to state one reason why I belong to a church, why I don’t believe in being spiritual without being part of a church, it is this: Because I need people in my life who challenge me to dig deeper into my own faith and assumptions, and who will hold me up when I can’t do it on my own. Thank you for standing by me in prayer and love. You were never far from my thoughts or prayers.
So now I am returning back to my roots, to the Diocese of Nova Scotia and PEI. It was a sad decision, but not a difficult one. On behalf of my mom, thank you for all the prayers and good wishes. She has been through a rough few months. However, we got some good news just this week. At the end of her first cycle of chemo her cancer has reduced, more than the doctors would have expected. She is still pretty weak, but we look forward to her getting stronger with this new hope we have been given. Jason, Bishop Peter and Bishop Ron Cutler have been very compassionate and generous as I have made this decision and I am very thankful to have a place to serve and be closer to Mom to support her.
I’ll be serving two parishes-Parrsboro/Port Greville and Springhill-who are working towards an agreement to share a priest. I still don’t know how many churches there are between the two parishes. I have counted 4, although I’ve also heard 5 and 7. They are quite a distance apart, and each parish has had their own full time priest for over 100 years. There is a great deal of hope and possibility for these small places. The communities are strong and faithful, but it is time for new and creative ways of serving God with reducing populations and incomes. Whether you are an urban or a rural church, that is a difficult place to be, and the only thing to lean on is God’s faithfulness.
Last week we celebrated the baptism of Jesus, the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. As with Jesus, our call to the Christian life, our ministry begins with the moment of our baptism. Whether we are baptized as babies, or teenagers or later in life, in that moment we are baptized with water and signed with oil, we are called by God. Think of all the words and all the phrases that could have echoed over that river in the heat of the day as Jesus was raised from the water: “This is the Messiah,” “He will save the world from sin,” “He is and will proclaim the Word of God,” or “He will raise up the downtrodden and free the captives from prison.” Of all of that, instead, the voice said, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
For those who follow our lectionary readings you may have noticed I changed the second reading for today. The chosen reading was from 1 Corinthians and warned against fornication. Now, I have no problem talking about sexuality, but didn’t really want to leave here on that note, so I picked up on another theme in our readings: From the beginning of time to end of the age, from the worst of us to the best of us, God knows and loves each one of us equally and profoundly. And there is nothing we or anyone else can do to change that.
When we read stories of calling, like this morning with Samuel and Nathaniel, it often draws us to reflect on the actions of following Christ-the sacrifices we make, the words that we speak. All you have to do is take a look around this church to see that we are a community of action oriented people!
Deborah Krause describes the call of Christian life in this way: “an invitation to a lifelong relationship with God that, in the midst of life’s challenges and adversity, is charged with the assurance of God’s presence and is connected to a deep awareness of God’s sovereign purposes of justice and peace for all creation” (New Proclamation Year B 2006).
When Yahweh called Samuel, Samuel did not yet know God. But Yahweh knew him, knew him before he was planted in the infertile womb of his mother, Hannah. Jesus knew Nathaniel from under the fig tree and before Nathaniel knew there was a Messiah.
And when I say “knew”, I don’t mean their facebook profile-birthday, status, what they ate for breakfast. The way we claim to know one another. God knew all of Samuel and Nathaniel, their blessings and their faults, the things they were ashamed of, the things they took pride in, who they loved and who they hated. They were not called to perform a task. They were not hired. They were invited into a relationship where they would be loved by a God who is pleased with them entirely. They were promised God’s presence with them always. For our offertory hymn this morning we are singing an old hymn that has been in the back of my mind almost daily these past 3 months: Great is Thy Faithfulness. As faithful as we are to God, God was faithful to us first and will always be faithful to us most
We rarely spend time reflecting on the psalm, but Psalm 139 really is one of the most beloved. In fact, the reading from Romans and this psalm are often read at funerals. They are both read near the beginning of the service to remind those who mourn that, no matter how they felt about the person they are burying, no matter what has been left unresolved, how abandoned they may feel, God will never, ever abandon their loved one and will never abandon them. It is a psalm that has always been close to my faith and I share often.
We can do our best to obey the call to love others, but without love, a profound and honest faith in how much God loves you, those you love, and those you find difficult to love, then actions are a clanging gong and a clashing cymbal. God’s love is not selective. And when you recognize God’s love for you in all things, it is only then that you can cease to hate others. The resentment and anger in our hearts is only healed by recognizing that God loves and knows every part of us, the beautiful and the ugly. When we fail to see others as God created them, then we fail to know that we are also loved by God.
There is a parable about a young rabbi, Zusya, who approached an older rabbi about his discouragement in the face of his sins and failures. The older rabbi said to him, “When you walk into heaven, and you come before God, God will not ask you, ‘Why weren’t you Moses?’ No. Instead, God will ask, ‘Why weren’t you Zusya? How about you stop trying to be Moses, and start being the Zusya God created you to be?'” (Psalms, Westminster Bible Commentary)
We have been created in love, to love and be loved. Nothing less.
Over these past two and a half years we have been challenged as a church in a community growing in numbers, diversity and needs. The temptation to focus on the numbers of “bums in pews” is so great in this day and age of the biggest being the best. We aren’t called to be bigger and bigger. We are called to be faithful, not just to programs, but to one another. Commit to being reconciled to one another, to encouraging and holding up one another in prayer.
And keep your vision outwards. Whether it brings people in on Sunday mornings or not, God has called each church in every community, large and small to love and spread the good news of Jesus Christ. Every church and every Christian in them. Since I arrived I have called Christ Church the best kept secret in Stouffville. Each one of you have great opportunities to share with your friends, your coworkers and your families the good works that God is doing in our midst. The church is not this building, nor the programs in it, nor Jason or Jane as “the ministers”. The church is you, and you and you and you. Young and old. Rich and poor. And the love of God is not just shared here on Sunday mornings to those who chance in. It is shared by each and every one who has the sign of the cross on our foreheads as we love one another. That’s the church.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the love of God, and in Jesus Christ, and the blessing of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit be with you all and remain with you always. Amen.