Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem May 16, 2021
A month ago, Norma, asked for a Bible verse to place upon the cover of our Annual Report. The same ones which are now available here at the church. And I would like to say thank you, thank you Norma, for both this invitation and for your ongoing ministry. Yet, I will say that this invitation – this scriptural choice is considerably harder than one might think. For, how can we sum up a whole year in a single Bible verse. How do we share the wonderful callings that have brought us together as a community and the multitude of hardships we have endured throughout the pandemic? No, it is not easy though I suspect some may be wondering if the passage chosen was from the book of Revelation, perhaps the whole “lake of fire” passage? And, I cannot say it did not cross my mind, at least momentarily when I considered the divisiveness of the world today. Yet, God revealed another passage after some time and quite a bit of prayer.
Prayer which brought one particular Bible verse to mind, “Love thy neighbor.” Love thy neighbor, yes if anything those words express what all people are being called to do throughout the world. And yes, I do mean all people on all sides whether you have loved your neighbor by wearing the mask to keep one another physically safe or have loved your neighbor by wearing the mask to help one another feel safe. Either way, you have made a sacrifice and chosen to love our neighbors. So, well done beloved for you have shared the fruit of God’s love. However, I wonder if you kept some of that fruit for yourself?
Before we continue would you pray with me?
Holy God, invoke in us the third breath of your love into our lives. Invoke Your Love, Holy One; so, we know that it is alright to love ourselves – to be filled and refreshed by the fruit of your love – and empowered to share Your love with the world. May the words from my lips and the meditations on all our heart be pleasing to you God.
Now beloved, this fruit of Love we have been speaking about the last two weeks is a blessing, a gift from God and one we can share with our neighbors. Yet, this gift has also been a sacrifice. Oh yes, we physically survived the pandemic – socially seem to be making it through and without any doubt in my heart we are spiritually closer to God in many ways today. Yet, that little piece of cloth over our faces is also a sacrifice. One which I think we feel now more than ever as the CDC says we can remove the mask if we are fully vaccinated. We can remove the masks; but, if we do I wonder – I wonder will you feel anxiety? I know I have. I have experienced a touch of uneasiness when the Governor dropped the mask mandate – felt just a bit exposed or worse yet possibly exposing others. Yet, this uneasiness was minimal for me, thank God. However, for many people this experience is intensified as they are also dealing with anxiety, stress, and mental health distress from a multitude of other sources.
To explain, last year there were an additional 1.5 million people who reportedly suffered from mental illness compared to the statistics in 2019. These numbers covered ailments from anxiety to full on suicidal tendencies. Currently today, the same percentage of 20.56 % of New Hampshire’s population are still suffering from mental illness in some shape or form. Now I do not believe all 1.5 million additional people are from wearing masks nor all from the isolation which we have experienced throughout this past year. Yet, the mask and the isolation which many people are feeling could absolutely be a contributing factor. For, humans as a general rule, need one another. We need to experience one another in smiles, smirks and frowns. And our inability to witness each other’s faces over the last year is one of the sacrifices we have made for love. But has this sacrifice actually caused damage to our emotional and mental well-being?
Personally, I cannot say. Yet, I do know that this increase in mental illness has an additional unseen cost which is affecting many people. It is the cost which I felt the edges of when I took off the mask for the first time. For, these cases of mental illness are only the reported cases of mental illness in the United States. The people who are receiving help. How many more people are struggling in our world which has and is undergoing trauma.
And this beloved is the sacrifice we have really made as we chose to love our neighbors by wearing the mask – avoiding people – engaging lockdown protocols. We have all become traumatized by the missing events and joys, the missing social interaction, the isolation in our everyday lives. We have all undergone a traumatic event which is not quite over. We have undergone trauma and yet we are not all dealing with that wear on our mental health. Perhaps then it is time to recognize that the fruit of God’s love poured out for the neighbor has another part to the commandment, A commandment that we, especially in the Christian church, fail to always recognize; but an aspect which is most assuredly necessary to be full disciples of Christ.
Let us therefore turn to that scripture on our Annual Report which we all know so well, the passage from the Gospel according to Mark: The Great Commandment. The words which remind us to do three things according to the theologian, Pheme Perkins. He says this passage calls us to 1. believe in one God, 2. wholehearted devotion to God, and 3. love of neighbor. And this passage does do all three of these things. It is a clear commandment of what we are called to do as disciples of Christ, especially amongst a divisive world. For if you recall, Jesus’ world in the Markan Gospel has a consistent division between Jesus and the scribes. Yet, here the author describes this scribe as not a hostile questioner – but simply as having a different mindset and one who is willing to hear the truth of the commandment which is well received and what we are called to do as disciples – to end divisiveness in the world and simply love thy neighbor. Yet, what many Christians, as well as theologians like Perkins, forget is the last part of the commandment. In fact, almost every single commentary which I have read all seem to gloss over what I believe may be the most important. It is the problem we are facing today in this world as we start to anxiously peel away the masks and realize we have all been traumatized while loving one another. It is the problem we are dealing with throughout every division and one which is emphasized in the scribe. For, the scribe after hearing the word of God did not become a disciple of Christ – he does love the neighbor – listens to the teachings of Jesus – and accepted the words; yet he did not stop loving himself or who he was called to be by God. He remains a scribe.
This beloved is the good news of the great commandment. It is not simply to love your neighbor to the point and sacrifice of yourself but to love your neighbor as yourself – equal too and not more than our sisters and brothers. This truth is lost in the Christian way so often when we are being kind to one another we sometimes forget that we are actually called to take care of our own physical – social – spiritual needs and especially our own mental needs. For, how can we give God’s fruit of Love to our neighbor if we have no fruit left for ourselves. The simple reality is that we cannot. We cannot, nor should we give up everything at the destructive cost of ourselves – for we are all the beloved children of God and no one should be lost in any way.
This Good News of the great commandment is a hard one for many Christians beloved for many are taught from a young age that sacrifice and martyrdom are the key to heaven. We are taught that it does not mean anything unless it hurts – unless it costs – unless you feel pain in some way. These are the older teachings which focus not on Jesus’ sacrifice as the final sacrifice that was required or on my belief that Jesus came as the pure Love for all, but on our Jewish fore-parents who believed in sacrificial offerings to God. And, I will say there are times when sacrifice and the cost of loving one another to this degree is required – when a sacrifice is needed to keep the most vulnerable amongst us safe and secure – when the world is hurting from a pandemic then yes there are times for sacrifice which you have all revealed throughout our community.
Yet there also comes a time where we must remember to love ourselves and care for ourselves. There are times where we must love our own spirituality and nurture our relationship with God through prayer, a walk on the beach, time of worship with other people – there are times to love our own social life and be in community or separated from community as our being requires – there are times where we must love ourselves and eat the foods best for us – workout as our body enjoys – or even go to the doctor when something feels off – And yes beloved there are times where we must love our own mental being for we have all been traumatized by this last year in a variety of ways. This does not mean everyone will need psychological therapy, but it does mean that you are important and there are wounds amongst us. Emotions and masks have divided people over and over again throughout the last year and we all need someone – someone to comfort us during our personal traumas. We all need someone, and please know that I am here as one of your resources which you will always have to talk too about whatever – for we are complete beings and whatever affects you affects your relationship with God.
That said, I pray that you remember this Good News that many people forget in these days when we start to remove the masks and start to come out of the pandemic. In these days when we feel ever so slightly anxious or vulnerable. In these days when our mental health may be the most vulnerable for now is the time, we will begin to deal with the trauma and sadness we have undergone. When we come into the church and rejoin in fellowship – when we see how big Ginny or Matthew have gotten over the last year, I expect we may all feel the loss that we have endured this year.
This truth reminds me of a friend, Shawn, who pushed away all his sadness for years just to love the neighbor – care for his friends – nurture all the concerns in the world. He did this over and over for years. Until one day when the mask came off. He finally had everything he wanted in life – the perfect career and partner. Then, Shawn crumpled and was shattered by the weight of his sadness. For you see, he had forgotten to love himself along the way and none of us had any idea what he was going through; for, he kept it bottled up until it came pouring out like a flood. I still think about Shawn and the sadness that drove him to commit suicide. This difficulty, beloved, is what I pray that you never have to endure – the flood of pain and loss undealt with because you are always sacrificing for another without remembering that God’s loving fruit is there for you as well, not just the gift we give away. Therefore, I pray that this week each of you love yourself enough to care for all your needs, especially the mental – emotional support which no one else can witness without your voice. In the love of God given freely for all we pray, Amen.