(sermon given at the Institute of Living, Hartford, CT 12/7/2014)
Text: Matthew 25: 31 – 46
I want to tell you a little about my process for coming here. Each time I come here, I think to myself, “What do the people who are in prison need to hear? What do the captives need to hear?”. Christians, taking from the book of Isaiah 6:11 see John the Baptist saying, “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners”… Then I go read the lectionary texts and this is what comes out. This way, both Christians and Jews claim the same challenge, to do the same thing and since, I think most of you are either Christians or Jews, if you have any faith, it gives me something to say.
Now, I know my buildings and I know that this is not a prison — you can’t slide one past me — but for some of you it feels exactly like that. I’m well aware that when I leave this room, they have to “buzz me out” because the doors are locked, and I’m pretty sure that none of you really wants to be here, but, then, nobody wants to be in any kind of hospital and people with broken legs or kidneys that don’t function feel captive in their bodies as well. But mental illness, of whatever kind brings you here is a special kind of prison all its own because whenever your illness flares up– again, whatever it is — there is no escaping. You take your head and your thoughts with you wherever you go. For some reason, I have had the words of Bob Marley in my head all week — “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds”. It is the job of the staff here — and mine — to help you emancipate yourself in whatever ways we can.
So this week, I read the text from Matthew and — for the first time ever — I have always read the text from the perspective of “well-adjusted people” who are supposed to care for others — the kind who are in church and the preacher sees from the pulpit. Now, there are some mentally ill people in those pews as well. I know this because there are mentally ill people everywhere, but nobody knows their thoughts, so we preach as though they were well-adjusted”. This week, I saw the text from the perspective of perspective of people in here and here’s the good news. God, or Jesus, thinks you are important. You are the priority of God’s love and are supposed to be our mission as humans. So much so that when we believe when Jesus comes back, you are the people he will ask about. The text says, “when I was sick”, you’re in a hospital. “when I was in prison”, we’ve already covered that, “when I was hungry” — I’ll bet that more than a few of you couldn’t afford food or didn’t eat well before you came in. Having worked with the homeless mentally ill, I can tell you that food and clothing are psychological and spiritual needs as well as basic physical ones.
So, Jesus says to his disciples “take care of them, because in taking care of them, you take care of me” and you do what’s right.
The gospel looks so different for people on the wrong side of life. That’s why I like coming here. I am aware that most people who are here are needy — they lack or lacked something: Protection from abuse, the ability to keep themselves away from drugs, safety or food or water, those are the kinds of things that cause us stress and push people toward mental issues. There’s the biological part, sure, but inevitably I find some sort of horrible stress that kicks in to cause the problems that brought you here. People who aren’t needy are a lot more difficult to convince that they need God or that God exists. They think that they did it all on their own. But people in here, I can assure you, have needs and have need of God.
You are the priority to God. You are exactly where I’m supposed to be. The gospel this morning says so.
Now does this mean that you are exempt from the challenge of paying attention to the needs of others? Not at all. Just because you have whatever illness you have, you are still human. You are still people. So you have the charge to take care of the lonely or the sick or the hungry just as well. And you don’t have to look far to see who that is. Your thoughts aren’t always “off” and when they are “on” you have something to say, some piece of wisdom that is the key for them, some idea or some experience that might help your neighbor. And, as you know, it’s not always a word that matters, sometimes it’s just holding someone’s hand or sitting there with them while they go through whatever it is they’re going through. And you might just have a special insight into what that is.
So here’s The Word for the week: God thinks you’re important. God thinks they are important. And God thinks we all have some work to do. In that lies our redemption. If Jesus were here, this is where he’d be. Amen.