Sermon for Healthcare Sunday – mental health (Sunday 17 October 2010)

Luke 5.12-14

“Joy Unconfined”

“They wept, they hugged, they cheered,
and still the incredible rescue went on”

“A triumph of hope over despair that moved us all”

Those were the headlines from just one newspaper on Wednesday this week when 33 men were rescued after being trapped for 70 days in a mine 700 meters below ground in Chili.

As they emerged from the rescue capsule they wore sunglasses to protect their eyes even though it was the middle of the night.  And they were all taken to a hospital to have medical checkups and any treatment needed.

And we can well understand that.  Living for so long in such conditions must inevitably have affected their physical health.  And some have been treated for dental problems, skin infections and pneumonia.

We can understand too the psychological pressures on these men and we know that from the earliest days experts were on hand to help support their mental as well as physical health and wellbeing.

There is now concern that some of the men may not easily recover psychologically and that others may develop mental distress or illness in the future because of this experience.

And that’s not quite so easy to understand.  After all, the men are free, they’re once more with their families and they can enjoy sunshine, fresh air, good food and drink.  Why would they still be suffering psychological distress or mental illness?

But sometimes our minds can keep us trapped in some very dark and isolated places.

Sometimes we’re caught in that trap because there has been some sort of rock fall in our lives and it feels like everything is collapsing around us.

Sometimes though there is no distinct cause, the trap grows around us gradually as an illness starts eating away at our minds just as the skin disease of leprosy eats away at the body so that eventually fingers and toes begin to drop off.

Last Sunday was World Mental Health Day and today is Healthcare Sunday with a special emphasis on the care of those with mental illnesses.  We’re also remembering St Luke whose day it is tomorrow, 18th October.

So this seems like a good day to use one of the stories told by Luke (who we believe was a doctor) to think about issues to do with mental health.  And because, as most of you know, I have had my own encounter with mental illness in the form of depression and anxiety, I’d like to share some of my thoughts with you.

The word leprosy, in Jesus’ time, meant a whole range of skin conditions the most serious of which kept sufferers separated from their families and communities because of the high risk of infection.  Someone with leprosy would have to wear torn clothes, cover their mouths and call out “unclean” to warn others not to approach them.  Luke, the doctor, refers to the man who approaches Jesus as being covered with leprosy.  He sees the whole person behind the illness and doesn’t refer to him, as Mark does, as just “a leper” – someone defined by their illness.

The men who were trapped down the mine were not only miners, they were men with family, wives, children, mothers and a whole life in the light of day that they were being denied during this awful period.

So too, when we suffer severe mental distress or illness, we need people to understand that we are more than just one of “the mentally ill” – we have lives like anyone else but at the moment our lives are being disrupted by a sort of distress or illness that could happen to any of us at any time.

As the man approaches Jesus he pleads to him saying “If you choose, you can make me clean” – “if you choose

I certainly recognize that statement:  “If you wanted to heal me, set me free from this dreadful darkness surely you could do so.  The fact that I’m still struggling after all this time with no light ahead must mean that you don’t want me to be well, you don’t really love me.”

But through my own experience I’ve come to believe that, with the commitment and determination of those who planned and carried out the work needed to rescue the trapped men, God is always working on rescue plans, struggling to reach us in ways we can understand and trust because he does want us to be well.

Jesus responds to the man’s plea saying “I do choose.  Be made clean”.   Mark describes Jesus as being “moved to anger”.  He is saying “of course I want to heal you.  How could you think otherwise.  Of course I don’t want to see you, or anyone else, suffering disease and distress.  Of course I want you to be made whole and to be restored in spirit.  I hate all those things that cause pain and misery and I have come to challenge their hold on you, to set you free and help you find fullness of life”.

I’d like to think that even if there had only been one man trapped underground, all available resources would have been employed to rescue him.  I do believe that that’s what God does for us – every single one of us who is trapped in darkness of mind is special to God who will stop at nothing to bring us out into his light.

We are now told in Luke’s story that “immediately the leprosy left him”.

If only mental distress or illness could be cured in an instant.  I’ve never known it happen.  Most people I’ve spoken to have recovered slowly and not always completely.  Many have learnt to manage it or live with a condition or state of mind so that it no longer dominates their lives.

Finally, Jesus tells the man who had leprosy to go through all the formal legal requirements so that he can be officially certified as clean and fit to return into his community.  I wonder how easy that will be for him.

We’ve already thought about how the experience of being trapped underground might affect those men physically and mentally; how they might have difficulty adjusting to everyday lives again and their probable need for psychological support.

A prolonged experience of mental distress or illness will also change us and our way of relating to the world around us.  It might be difficult for those who know and love us to cope with those changes but they will surely be glad with us that the healing process is setting us free from our mental dungeon of darkness.

At the heart of the stories of the Chilean miners and the man with leprosy and at the heart of our own stories of rescue from places of captivity lies a belief that freedom and healing is possible.  In the darkest times we might feel that life is always going to be like this and we’re never going to recover.  In those times we need the faith of others to carry us.

But I firmly believe that, however we get there, there will come a time when the shadows fade, our hearts lift and we are able to share with others the good news of God’s power to save.

One miner said of his experience, “I was with God and with the Devil.  And I reached out for God and he won.”

Let’s all reach out for God and know that he’ll win.