Sermon - Sunday, 27 October 2019

The following sermon was delivered by Iain Majcher on Sunday, 27 October 2019.

Scripture: Luke 18: 9 - 14

IN THE NAME OF GOD, FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, AMEN

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke recently for Mental Health day, of his battle with depression. He told the world that since last year he has been on medication to help him win the daily struggle. A man who is friend and mentor to Royals, politicians and celebrities, is fighting a battle with mental health. 

Prince Harry this week on ITV also gave an interview at the end of his Africa tour, in which he spoke about the constant management needed to his own mental health. 

Struggles with mental health is something which affects the wealthy and the poor, the educated and the uneducated. Those who are leaders and those who are followers. There may even be people here today who are silently struggling in the pews. In the same way that any of us may trip over outside and break a bone, we are all susceptible to struggles with our own mental health. None of us are perfect. 

Within my own family we know all too well how draining poor mental health can be on individuals and families. 

These last years have been an emotional rollercoaster in so many ways, including multiple hospital visits for our family last year, including a stay in ICU for Richard. This is on top of many sleepless nights and a full working week. So a number of months ago I started seeing a Christian Counsellor on a regular basis. I sought help, to give me a place to offload, from the constant bombardment of life, because I am not perfect. I too need to keep my own mental health in check. 

Celeste has been battling with depression for the last 8 years. There have been good years and bad years. Last year she once again sought help. The loss of her father and the stresses and strains this brought, alongside a physically and emotionally draining pregnancy, reignited a need to seek professional support, and she is still seeing a Christian councillor today. 

What was slightly surprising was that our health visitor didn’t refer Celeste to an NHS department. Instead she was referred to the perinatal service at Palmerston Place from Crossreach, the social care arm of the Church of Scotland. There was such a high demand for their services, that at the time, there was a 6-month waiting list. It gives a glimpse of the need in our own city.

Crossreach is an amazing organisation which often goes unseen and under appreciated. Among many other things, they are making considerable inroads supporting and educating society about the need to talk more openly about mental health, but they can only do so much by themselves, we need to continue the conversation. 

Rev Fair, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland for next year, said this week announcing his nomination that;

Churches and the wider voluntary sector, have an obligation to step in, and fill the gaps in mental health services, until they are able to access the appropriate services. 

By the time we have finished our coffee after this morning’s service, somebody will have taken their own life in the UK, most likely a middle-aged man.  He will be someone’s husband, father, friend or neighbour.

Mental health is real, and we need to be more open about it. (Every 90 minutes somebody takes their life in the UK.)

The problem with mental health is that it is unseen. Those struggling with their mental health are often reluctant to speak about it, due to the worry of how others will see them. It is amazing what a brave face, a clean shirt or a bit of make-up can do.

For Justin Welby to come out and say as the Archbishop of Canterbury that he was on medication, would have been unimaginable a few years ago. But barriers are beginning to be broken down. 

It is perhaps uniquely challenging for ministers and indeed all Christians to admit that we need support with our mental health.  The perception can be, that we shouldn’t need to get help. We should have it all together as we know Christ. However today we see a different truth in the Gospel reading.  

We are often quick to turn our condemnation on the Pharisee. After all, he enters the temple and shows everyone just how well he is doing. How perfect and righteous he is, how he is thriving, not drowning. 

He came into the temple and said for all to hear;

God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.

Can you imagine how hard, even impossible you may say, for the Pharisee to have come in and prayed anything else? As a Pharisee, he was a religious leader, an important man within the Jewish society. Yet he was not perfect, for Christ alone is perfect. 

The Pharisee must have known that he had sinned, he must have had his own struggles. However, it was not something that he could share publicly. I can imagine that due to his position and the perceived expectations of society, he was afraid and ashamed to admit his own limitations.

So, he entered the temple, the one place in which all were welcome, and he prayed, but he kept a part of his own story invisible. To have admitted that he was struggling, that he didn’t have it all together, all of the time, was a step too far for him on that day and perhaps everyday. 

We also though have another character in the story, the tax collector. A figure often seen as an outcast of society. However, he was anything but. He was part of the Roman occupation; he was wealthy, due to the fact that he took more taxes than required. He would have been part of the social elite of the Roman world, while being despised by the Jews. He too, like the Pharisee, entered the temple, a place where he would have been seen as an extorter and a sinner. Yet he was welcome to enter. 

He may have heard the whispers of the other temple goers saying; ‘What on earth is he doing here, he doesn’t deserve to be here.’ Perhaps, as we look at his prayer, we may wonder if he had a small advantage over the Pharisee. 

He was already seen as a sinner by the crowds, people knew he had wronged them and others. He was disliked and seen as an outsider. He was in a place where few of the Roman elite would have been, if indeed any, and those who were watching, would most likely be the people he would be squeezing for money later. They already saw him as a sinner, so why not admit it?  Staring at his shoes and beating his chest he calls out;

God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

The tax collector prompts us in his words and actions, of the need to be honest about ourselves to those around us and to God. He encourages us to be bolder in our actions, as we speak out about our own struggles, in the knowledge that God hears our cries, and in the hope that others might hear us too. 

We can also learn from the Pharisee the need to admit that we are imperfect, and that not every day is easy. That we don’t always need to put on a brave face, because God sees our struggles, even if others only see the strained smile. 

The actions of both the Pharisee and the tax collector, remind us of the need to be open about our own battles, for none of us are better than our neighbour. None of us are perfect.

Neither of the men, from what we know, reached out to anyone around them. Indeed, the tax collector positioned himself far off, and distanced himself from others. 

How often do we find ourselves actively pushing others away, as we go through difficulties in life? How often do we look on, as others reach out for help in their words and actions, only to be blind to their needs? 

Nicky Gumbel who developed Alpha said; Churches are not museums that display perfect people. They are hospitals where the wounded, hurt, injured and broken find healing. 

Nicky reminds us that all should find acceptance in the church, when they speak out about their own problems, invisible as they may be, for we are all imperfect. 

The church offers us a place to be honest. A place in which a QC can sit as an equal next to an ex-convict. A professor next to somebody who left school at 15 with no qualifications, and a business person can sit next to a failed entrepreneur, struggling to make ends meet. All of us different, all of us unique and all of us equal. 

Nobody, regardless of our standing in society or the church, should need to put on a show like the Pharisee, because we are all wounded and hurt in our own way. 

 Nobody should need to distance themselves like the tax collector, because all are welcome here. We are all imperfect and yet we all reach out to the one who is perfect, our God and Saviour Jesus Christ. 

He invites us to create a space in His church, where the Pharisees and the Tax Collectors can dare to be honest and know that they are not alone, for none of us are perfect.

In the same way as we heard the Psalmist teach us today that;

The Lord upholds all who are falling,

The Lord is near to all who call on him.

May we too uphold those who are falling around us, those who are struggling in their own battles with mental health.  In doing so we will ensure our churches are a place where the invisible can dare to be visible. Equally imperfect, and equally loved by Christ and by us. 

Amen