As he went, the crowds pressed in on him. 43 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians,[l] no one could cure her. 44 She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. 45 Then Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” When all denied it, Peter[m] said, “Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you.” 46 But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.” 47 When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. 48 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
This week is the third in our four-part series on how Progressive, Open and Affirming churches can move from simply welcoming marginalized people into our congregation to intentionally working with marginalized people to make our space accessible for all. Two weeks ago, we talked about how to create space for the transgender community in our church and last week we talked about how to be more accommodating and accessible for people who are living with a disability. If you missed either of these sermons, I invite you to watch the video of them on our Facebook page. I also hope you will join us next week, when we will be addressing how to create space for people living in poverty.
Today, I am preaching about what we can do to make our church safer for people who are living with a mental illness. When I began to research this topic earlier this week, I came across a list of sermon illustrations for preaching about mental illness. I looked at the very first illustration under “anxiety” expecting to find a comforting scripture, maybe an illustration about how prayer and spiritual practices help to calm anxiety. What I found instead was an article about how anxiety is incompatible with the Christian faith. That Jesus tells us throughout the gospels not to worry, and that giving into our anxiety is going against the word of the Lord.
As someone who lives with anxiety, reading that makes me feel like I am not welcomed and loved in Christian spaces. It makes me feel very alone. But according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 people live with some sort of mental health condition. That means that over 43 million people in America experience some sort of mental illness every year, and although there isn’t enough data to say for certain it is thought that with the stress and isolation brought on by the Coronavirus the number of people living with anxiety and depression right now is probably much higher.
All too often the stigma around mental health cause us to hide what we are going through from each other. This can lead us to feel desperate, isolated, and alone when really we have so many other people around us who are going through similar things. The church needs to be a place where people feel safe sharing their hurt with one another.
In our text for this morning, we meet a woman who is in a desperate situation. The text tells us that she had been hemorrhaging blood for twelve years. She had spent every penny that she had seeking medical help, but no one could help her. Her condition just continued to get worse and worse.
To truly understand what she was going through, we must remember that she was living in a society that had purity codes which considered menstruating women to be unclean. According to the purity code,
“When a woman has a discharge…whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening.And everything on which she lies during her menstrual impurity shall be unclean. Everything also on which she sits shall be unclean…And whoever touches anything on which she sits shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening.”
Can you imagine living this way for 12 years? For 12 years, she was an outcast who was considered unclean in her community. Unable to touch or to be touched. Unable to sit on shared furniture or a shared bed. Probably unable to maintain close relationships, almost certainly unable to be married. It’s no wonder that she was desperate for help!
She had heard about Jesus and the miracles he was performing, and she believed them. Clinging to her last little bit of hope she thought, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” So, she fought her way through the crowd towards Jesus, knowing that she was breaking the purity code with each person she brushed up against. Knowing that if she was recognized by someone, they could turn the crowd against her. She risked humiliation, maybe even punishment for breaking the purity codes. But still, she pressed on towards him.
Have you ever been that desperate? Have you ever felt so lost and alone that you were at the end of your rope…clinging onto the last shred of hope that you have left?
Painful, daunting situations in our lives can bring out our desperation and depression. A frightening medical diagnosis, divorce papers, or a pink slip can change our lives in a matter of moments. Being diagnosed with a mental illness can cause us to feel ashamed and lead to us living with mental instability without support or resources. Fear and isolation during this recent pandemic are causing many of us to feel anxious or depressed, and depression and anxiety can make us to feel like we are completely alone and unloved. So, what can we do as the church to make ourselves a place where it is safe for people experiencing a mental illness to share their story?
If we look at this morning’s scripture, what happened right after the woman is healed is a good example for us to follow. Jesus, despite feeling pressed in upon by the crowd all around him, noticed that the woman touched him. She was not just a nameless face in the crowd, she was an individual who mattered to him.
The text says, “Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’”He looked all around to see who had done it.But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.”
Jesus saw her, and Jesus listened to her. He heard her story of pain, of struggle, of all that she had gone through to get to this moment. Instead of recoiling in disgust that she had made him unclean, he reached out to her with compassion and called her daughter. He told her to be at peace, for her faith had made her well.
I wish that when we were hurting and in pain, Jesus’ cloak would be within arm’s reach for us as well. Even though this isn’t physically possible, I do think that reaching out is the bravest and the most important thing that we can do when we are feeling the weight of desperation. And when someone does reach out to us, we need to be ready to be Jesus’ cloak for that person.
As followers of Jesus, we are all called to be his hands and feet in the world. When we build authentic relationships where we are willing to risk being vulnerable with each other, we also feel less alone. When we understand each other’s pain, we can become Jesus’ cloak for one another.
We are a joint DOC and UCC congregation, and we are blessed that both of our denominations care about the mental health of their congregations. In fact, the UCC has a process which is similar to the open and affirming process that churches can go through to become a WISE church—which stands for Welcoming, Inclusive, Supportive, and Engaged for mental health.
If we want to be a church that is a safe and accessible place for people living with a mental illness, the WISE process offers some great steps that we can start with. We can create a Mental Health Ministry Team that congregation members can reach out to for help. We can treat mental health like our physical health, including it in our prayer time and reaching out to people in our congregation who are hurting or in pain.
We can do training as a church to learn about how to meet the needs of someone living with a mental illness. We can also be aware of the WISE resources that the UCC offers for specific circumstances that may come up when we are intentionally welcoming of people with mental illnesses in our church. For example, we can learn how reach out to professionals for someone who may be a danger to themselves or others because of their mental health status. Part of being a church where people with a mental illness are welcomed and belong is being aware of the risks that can come along with that and being prepared to get that person help if they need it.
We can also provide our church building as a space for mental health support groups to meet, and we can support the work our denominations are doing in their mental health ministries.
We can work to confront the stigma that comes with a mental health diagnosis by being more open with one another about what we are going through. No matter how isolating anxiety or depression or PTSD can make you feel, know that you are not alone.
If you are struggling this morning, in the middle of a desperate situation, please know that you are loved. Know that you deserve to have people in your life that can walk with you in your pain. Know that you have no reason to be ashamed for hurting when life gets hard. Know that I see you and if you need someone to listen to what you are going through, I am here for you.
I am thankful for our church, because I have already seen that we are a congregation that reaches out into the community to spread Jesus’ love with others. It is my hope that we can also be a community where people are free to express their pain and sadness with one another without fear of rejection. It is my hope that we are willing to risk being vulnerable with one another. It is only through this risk that we can truly be Jesus to one another. Will you work with me to create a church where people experiencing a mental illness are accepted and belong? Amen.