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5th Sunday After Epiphany: “By the grace of God, I am what I am.”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O, LORD. Amen.

Last Sunday morning I texted Julie to tell her I had a with a very sore throat and to discuss how we were going to worship and she immediately said, “It’s all about Love!  We’ve got this!”  Well, that theme continues today—it’s all about love AND who we are—as the church and as individuals because of that love!  Did you notice the opening hymn had a phrase “we are each other’s bread and wine”?  

Today’s theme verse is “By the grace of God, I am what I am.” Who we are individually is by the grace and love of God!  We have been beautifully and wonderfully made!  We, all of us, are amazing testimonies to God!  Look at what God has created!  God’s glory is revealed in YOU!

But honestly, we don’t always feel that way do we?  Many people rarely feel that way but that is the truth of what our Holy texts tells us and what we are to tell each another!  Who we are — who we think we are matters!  And I am here to proclaim to you that everyone is created in love by God and is a divine expression of our Creator and that love!  

Now you may wonder where all this talk about LOVE and who we are comes from this morning.  It’s straight from the Holy Spirit AND our texts!  Look at the front of your bulletin: By the grace of God, I am what I am.  Who are you?  YOU!  The Apostle Paul was talking about who HE was, a learned religious man who persecuted the early church and surprising to everyone, was called to be a missionary of Jesus and share the good news to the world beyond Israel, but it’s a great verse for everyone, not just Paul.  By the grace of God, and the love of God, I am what I am -- and that is exactly how it should be.  

As I read today’s texts, I couldn’t help but notice that the three men: Isaiah, Peter and Paul, all encountered God and were overwhelmed by their humanness in comparison.  I think Isaiah and Peter at least felt inadequate in front of God.  Let me explain:  Isaiah’s vision was one of God’s glory!  Crying “Woe is me — I am a man of unclean lips,” how was it that HE saw the Lord of hosts? And yet the Lord asked “Whom shall I send!”  He knew Isaiah through and through and called him, human and imperfect!  

How about Peter?  Encountering the power of God through Jesus, Simon Peter fell down at Jesus knees and said, “Go away from me, for I am a sinful man.”  He was overwhelmed in the presence of God and again I think his words convey a feeling of inadequacy.  How could he, a simple fisherman, ever be enough and yet, Jesus knowing exactly who he was said: “Do not be afraid!  You will catch people from now on!”  The very human Simon Peter was also called exactly as he was.

I already mentioned Paul, self-identified as “the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” BUT BY THE GRACE OF GOD, I AM WHAT I AM…

Loved, accepted, called and sent out, their whole selves were known and they fully participated in the life of faith as they were — beloved, imperfect, complicated, flawed, gifted people.  Just like us.   We are called as well.  Called by God!  To do what?  To share God’s love.  To share God’s vision, God’s way, the kingdom of heaven here and now.  Our world and her people need Jesus’ GOOD NEWS just as much as those who heard it millennia ago.

God’s love, God’s welcome, God’s embrace, God’s acceptance of each one of us is for every person!  If you heard last week’s message then you know that we are in a 4 week preaching series on being the inclusive, welcoming, LOVING community of God and I am asking us to consider how we at Zion’s are to specifically do this.  Last Sunday, I focused on those who do not feel fully known/loved/welcomed by God’s people, the church, and therefore sometimes extrapolate that to God not loving/welcoming them because of their physical or intellectual disabilities, their other ability-ness.  

Today I want to address another group of people who often don’t feel beautifully and wonderfully made, created in the divine image IN LOVE, blessed and full participants in the kingdom of God:  those who might struggle to be fully welcomed in the beloved community because of mental illness.  

Like last week I had to do some research and reading on this subject.  Despite being a physician, marrying into a family with bipolar, depression and anxiety, having anxiety and schizophrenia in my biological family, and having experienced anxiety myself, I needed to focus on how faith communities welcome FULLY, OR NOT, those with mental health issues -- and folks, it’s a ton of people I’m talking about!

Did you know that in the US last year, nearly one in 5 people (19%) had one type of mental illness or another?  Or that 1 in 24, 4.1%, had serious mental illness?  In a country our size, that number adds up to a whole lot of people!  You know what else I learned?  It shocked me but Colorado ranked dead LAST of all the States in access to mental health care!  So, what it is?  MENTAL ILLNESS is a health condition that changes one’s thinking, behavior, emotions and is associated with distress and decrease functioning socially, at work and at home.  It’s treatable and those who deal with these conditions overwhelmingly are able to function daily and thrive.  It can be mild, like phobias or OCD trait, but can also be severe and require hospitalization.  It can be a one-time thing or a life-time thing.  You, your family member, friend, neighbor or coworker might deal with anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, PTSD, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts or a host of others.  

Those are some of the things mental illness is!  But what it is NOT is anything to be ashamed of…. It’s not the individual’s OR anyone’s FAULT!  It can affect anyone, just like heart disease, diabetes and cancer!  AND it matters because we/everyone matters and it can affect one’s lived experience.  I don’t know about you but I know people who wish they were not created as they were, people with mental illness.  Many echo thoughts like the ELCA pastor with cerebral palsy who grew up thinking God made him the WRONG WAY.  That is not right!

Our calling is to be the beloved community on earth, one that sees THE PERSON, THE PEOPLE, not a disorder or an illness AND WELCOMES THEM!  JUST AS THEY ARE!  Beautifully created by God, beloved by their creator, religious/spiritual groups HAVE to have an openness and inclusiveness, so that everyone is fully welcomed. 

How to do that?  Well, did you know there are study guides for congregations?  Caring Clergy project or Pathways to Promises are organizations that help churches specifically.   The national organization of Psychiatry has a faith community focus as does NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness?   In our own state this month, the NAMI Boulder chapter is beginning a number of ZOOM educational courses and one, In Our Own Voice is a free 60-minute presentation that will provide a personal perspective of mental health conditions, as leaders with lived experience talk openly about what it's like to have a mental health condition in order to change attitudes, assumptions and ideas about people with mental health conditions. 

As I said last week, when we make loving our neighbor (or ourselves) an abstract ideal, we make loving them difficult.  So what do me and WE need to do so that we are a totally inclusive, fiercely loving, welcoming body of Christ to people who have mental illness?  What do we need to do, dear Zion’s, to live out our call to love one another in practical ways?  Because if 1 in 5 in the US experienced mental illness last year, that means approximately 8 of us here today did.  It’s not abstract.  It’s about children of God, like my husband who doesn’t want to have bipolar disorder!  Or Becky’s seminary classmate, a man who has his masters in divinity, and is currently living on the streets in California, homeless and dealing with mental illness.  Or our own Doug Putnam.  Do you remember him from years ago?  Lana had helped him after decades of living on the streets because of schizophrenia. 

Last week I shared and heard from you some ideas for those with physical and intellectual disabilities.  What steps do we need to take when we consider those with mental illness?  Tell me but let me share some of my thoughts:  To start, I think we need to open our hearts and minds, we need to learn and listen; we need to share our stories and listen to others!   Because who they are, Who WE ARE, as people with mental illness is just another way that God’s diversity is expressed in this world!  Remember the old colloquial “God doesn’t make any junk!”  They/we are not only “fine” but BELOVED expressions of the Divine who I want to be able to shout out “By the Grace of God, I am what I am”—and as we are, all of us, seen, called, sent out to participate in and share the love of God — for ourselves, our posse, and the entire world.  Amen?