The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s041g08 Sunday 8 25/5/2008
'The eye is a lamp of the body'. Matthew 6.22
Yet the person most likely to be the saddest in a circus troop is said to be the clown!
It is curious that in the years I have been preaching and putting sermons on the internet this is the first occasion that I've preached on these set of readings. What lovely passages to be inadvertently missed out most years! Sundays 6 and 7 have also been missed, so perhaps I shall have to do something on Matthew 5:21-37 and Matthew 5:38-48 to complete the set. It is even more curious, because a prayer book I was given for my confirmation had the text Matthew 6.33 inscribed on the first page and as a consequence this has been something of a guiding principle in my own life.
'The eye is a lamp of the body' What a fascinating statement! Here is a true piece of wisdom if ever there was one. How we see directs how we feel and who we are.
So if we see evil everywhere, then we are very likely to see evil in ourselves. If we view the world as sinful, we will find ourselves in a similar boat. If we see the world as a hopeless basket case, then we will be lucky to escape depression. If we want to be boss of those around us, then more likely than not we will succeed, but we will be blind to the love offered to us by others.
On the other hand if we see good around us, it will be hard to be anything other than cheerful.
When I visit my banking website, at the bottom of the page there is an ever present disclaimer: 'General advice on this website has been prepared without taking into account your objectives, financial situation or needs. Before acting on the advice, consider its appropriateness.' And I thought about the Church and the Bible and sermons. Perhaps all of these should include a similar disclaimer. The advice given is of a general nature only, and people should consider its relevance in the light of their own personal circumstances.
My earlier words could be taken to mean that people cause their own depression, and it is their own fault if they can't snap out of it by their own efforts. I certainly do not believe this.
But sometimes the bad news on the TV can become over-whelming. It is necessary simply to switch it off or change channels.
Our own personal mental health is very much affected by our religious outlook on the world. The psychologist Dorothy Rowe quotes surveys which conclude that: 'Those who admitted feeling abandoned by God, or who blamed God or the devil for their poor health, increased their risk of death .. 19-28% .. as with patients who felt that they had been abandoned by their own Church or faith community.' (Beyond Fear p285) No doubt much of old style religion was based on fear and keeping people subservient. Sadly they hadn't read these comforting words of Jesus: 'do not worry'.
In my own experience, learning not to worry is a life long task. Each and every person suffers the demons of self doubt, and each and every person has to find their own ways of overcoming them. I would not wish to pretend that I have overcome all mine! I and we need to hear again and again those words of Jesus: 'Are you not of more value than .. the birds of the air'. And of course each and every person is more valuable than the birds of the air no matter what their colour, gender, faith, or with whom they express their intimate affections.
So if our religion serves to diminish us or others, then it is up to us to do something about it. It is quite certain that the Bible, the tradition of the Church, the sacraments can all be used to diminish others and ourselves, as well as encourage others and ourselves.
We are often our own worst enemies I certainly am. We can read the Bible and only 'hear' words of condemnation, when there are plenty of words of commendation as well. We can take the doctrine of original sin and come to the conclusion that God sends un-baptised babies into hell and this sounds more like a hateful demon than a God of love. We regularly use the sacraments to delineate who is kosher and who is not, all the while pretending that these sacraments we administer (/manipulate?) convey the very essence of God to people!
Recently I commented on the famous passage of John 3.16: 'God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.' Mostly it has been reinterpreted so that God only loves those who call themselves Christians and sent Jesus to make quite sure who were and who weren't. Interestingly those who believe that God only loves Christians don't actually believe in a God who loves the world. It is these who are denied eternal life or should I say they deny it for themselves.
Returning to the problem of depression, it may be that people can't 'snap out of it', but it is possible to change our minds about beliefs, particularly if those beliefs are causing ourselves or others harm. It is a bit like criminals leaving gaol and returning to the very same circumstances that caused them to offend in the first place. No matter what we do with depression, if we return to beliefs that cause ourselves or others to be diminished, is it any wonder if our depression returns?
Again from my experience depression will only be overcome when tackled on a number of fronts. Medication, positive and supportive people, meaningful employment (whether voluntary or paid), an active social life, all of these things contribute mightily to our own mental well-being. And significantly each and every one of these brings us closer to other people. We are made for community. If our religion alienates us from others then it diminishes ourselves as well as others.
We must be able to think about our faith and what enhances life and what diminishes life. So it is more important to be able to think than it is to conform. How can a child honour his or her father if that person is sexually abusing the child? Is this what the fifth commandment demands of the child? So any faith, once delivered to the saints, demanding obedience is inherently abusive for it is based on fear rather than these blessed words: do not worry! Even the old adage: 'children are to be seen and not heard' is a form of abuse.
'Do not worry .. Are you not of more value than .. the birds of the air'. Of course you and we all are! Each and every person is more valuable than the birds of the air no matter what their colour, gender, faith, or with whom they express their intimate affections.
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