Rev. Dr. Rachael Keefe was honored to have been invited to be the guest preacher for Mental Health Sunday this year at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis on March 19, 2023. Although Dr. Keefe does not write out her sermons, we are able to share video of this Mental Health Sunday sermon from one of the services, courtesy of Plymouth Congregational Church.
The video has open captions for accessibility, courtesy of Erika Sanborne Media, and the captions have been reformatted into readable paragraphs in this blog post. So you can read the entire sermon, or watch the captioned video of Rachael preaching, or listen to the audio from the video, whichever is the best experience for you.
Please keep in mind that the full text mental health Sunday sermon you are reading or hearing here is as transcribed and unscripted.
Questions? Interested in having conversation at your church about mental health ministry and the importance of accessibility? Contact Rachael Keefe to schedule a conversation.
Full Text Mental Health Sermon Transcript
I want to begin by thanking you for inviting me to be among you today. It has been a busy morning, but it has been good to be with you and I commend you on 50 years of a mental health drop in center.
That is a remarkable achievement for anybody, let alone a church. So thank you. I also commend you on having Mental Health Sunday, though I have to say that as long as church needs to have Mental Health Sunday, we have failed to do the work of Christ. There should not need to be a day set aside for us to talk about mental health and people who live with mental health challenges.
It should be normal, should be part of our everyday life, part of our everyday worship experience. We have a ways to go. We have done well, and yet there is more work to do. Is that not always the case? So we hear this very familiar story of the woman who anoints Jesus with that costly oil of nard. And we would like to think that we are not among those who would judge her.
We would like to think that maybe we are her. We are pouring out extravagance in service to Jesus. We would like to think that, right? And yet I think we have more in common with the disciples and Pharisees who condemned her, who scolded her, who did not understand her, then we have in common with her. Why is that?
We often think resources could be better used elsewhere. And if we had somebody who came among us and poured an expensive jar of perfume on the floor, we’d have something to say, would we not? We would likely say, “Well, that could have been sold and the money could have been given to the poor.” Well, things might get a little uncomfortable this morning, and I’m going to start with the variant reading of that sentence where Jesus said, You always have the poor with you.
Yes? The variant reading of that, that did not become popular, is that you will always be with the poor. Imagine how church history would have changed if we had adopted that translation, that the Church, the disciples of Jesus, would always be with the poor. Might change our perspective just a little bit. It’s not very comfortable to think about that now, though, is it?
Truth be told, most of us are uncomfortable thinking about mental health and mental illness. We are uncomfortable thinking about people who live with such challenges and whose symptoms make us uncomfortable to be around. And we like to think there is a line between us and them. There’s a problem with that. I’ve gotten myself into trouble on more than one occasion by saying things like, If one among us has a mental illness, the Body of Christ has a mental illness.
If one among us has schizophrenia, the Body of Christ has schizophrenia. If one among us is racist, the Body of Christ is racist, and that is no way for the Body of Christ to be. The Good News is that we know what to do to change this. We know what to do to make the Body of Christ healthy and whole and inclusive of the full diversity of humanity.
We have been told again and again and again. And this woman showed us. Pour out your most precious resources in service to Christ. Simple, right? So simple and yet so very hard.
We like to think that we are different from those in need of service. And yet, I assure you, we are not. A new study done for the American Psychological Association tells us that 27% of adults in America in the United States cannot function on a daily basis. 27% of adults cannot function because of stress, because of being overwhelmed.
And then the statistics say, and I don’t know how these two go together, but the statistics tell us that one in four or one in five adults is diagnosed with a mental health condition. One in 25 is diagnosed with a severe and persistent mental illness. So if you look around and do the math, there is no us and them.
They are us. We are them. People with mental illnesses are already present here. The question is how do we make it safe for them to talk about it? How do we make it safe for people to disclose their personal struggles? How do we make it safe enough for a person to say, “Yeah, I’m one of those 27% who can’t get through a day without crying”?
And what is making that happen? It isn’t an individual problem. The American Psychological Association has recently made a statement that suicide particularly is a problem outside of the individual. It is not a problem within the individual. That’s a huge statement from the American Psychological Association, you know, they focus on individual well-being, and they’re saying, but it’s a social problem, meaning those stress factors that cause 27% of U.S. adults to be unable to function are also contributing to the rates of suicide.
What are those issues? They are economic… The economic disparities in this country grow wider and wider. They are problems of a white supremacist culture. Talk about disparities. Minnesota, I think, still has the second highest disparity gap between White folks and People of Color, economically speaking. Why is that? We have the resources. I get mad every time I hear them say that we have I don’t know how many billions of dollars of surplus in the budget in Minnesota.
Well, why is that not spent on housing and health care and mental health and education and removing some of those disparities? Because of folks like you and me, White folks who have become too comfortable with the way things are and thinking that those problems are somebody else’s. Progressive White Christians have contributed to the stress factors that are increasing suicide rates among us.
We have done this with our complacency, with our silence, and with holding on to outdated theology we don’t even believe. What do I mean by that? Our outdated, unexamined theology is what is killing us. It is preventing us from including every human being that needs community within our walls, within our relationships. It is preventing us from making changes that are necessary.
Where else in your life do you do what was done in 1620? I mean, I know you are named after Plymouth, but seriously, where else in your life do you do anything that looks like it did in 1620? Nowhere. Shouldn’t that change? Shouldn’t that change? And I know you’re all like, but we come to church to be comfortable, to be comforted!
Yes and no. No, no, no. We worship someone who changed the course of human history, who changed and challenged every social standard of His time. Jesus did that. And if we say we follow Jesus, why are we silent when there is a White supremacist culture all around us? Why are we silent when the people have inadequate housing? Why are we silent when there are not enough treatment options for people with mental illness?
Why are we silent? Because we are afraid to offend? We are afraid to take a stand? We don’t want to be mistaken for those other kind of Christians?
That’s the problem, that us and them. Because we should be the kind of Christians who can proclaim what we believe. We should be right there with that woman who poured out all of her resources in service to Jesus. We should be her. We shouldn’t be complaining when somebody does an extravagant act of love that we don’t understand.
But if it comes from a place of love and it shows another person’s values, shouldn’t we endorse that? The greatest unmet spiritual need in the world today is the need for community, and by that a sense of belonging. As there has been a decline in religious affiliation, there has been an increase in suicide rates, an increase in rates of addiction and an increase in the rates of mental illness.
What does that tell you? We need community. Only in community, particularly Christian community, can we plant the seeds of hope to combat the pervasive sense of hopelessness that is throughout this country. We have a unique response. We can do as Jesus did and accept those who are weird and different, those who make us uncomfortable without excuse and just say, You belong here.
You are a part of us. We are a part of you. In Christ, there is no difference. Imagine the Church saying that.
We look around the room and we ask ourselves who is not here? Who remains unnamed in this place? And we challenge ourselves to open our hearts, to examine that outdated theology that blames people for their ailments and illnesses and quirkiness, and instead embody the love of Christ. You know, that agape, that love that is limitless, unconditional and inclusive of all.
We are the embodiment of Christ in the world today. You are the closest thing someone may encounter to Jesus Christ. We are complicit in the ills of society. We have been benefited from and contributed to the white supremacy that weighs so heavily on our nation and damages so many people. We have contributed with our complacency, with our unwillingness to take a stand and proclaim that all people are valuable.
All people are loved. All people are worthy of us pouring out our resources. All people are created in the image of God. Those of us gathered here, those of us outside our doors, those of us we have told ourselves we cannot help. What happens if we take seriously that idea that we as followers of Christ, will always be with the most vulnerable among us?
Who is more vulnerable than those who do not know that they are beloved, that they have value, that they are needed, and wanted? Who’s more vulnerable than that? We can no longer afford to cling to outdated ideas that mental illness is a punishment for sin or demon possession or somehow contagious. We can no longer afford to believe the lies of the media that tell us that it’s always someone with mental illness who is responsible for mass shootings and other such horrific acts.
We can no longer afford to be complacent or silent. I encourage you to continue to explore what it would look like to have a mental health ministry here in this place. What do you need to do in order to break the silence and shatter the stigma around mental illness? Maybe some among you need to risk telling your own stories.
Maybe we need to sit with one another and let extravagant love be poured out all over us. Whatever it is, my friends, there is work to do. But you have the tools to do it. Begin with “Every person is God’s beloved,”and end with “every person is God’s beloved.” And let extravagant love fill the places in between, setting aside your fear, setting aside any previously-held beliefs and taking a risk to be uncomfortable for the sake of someone else’s life. That’s what it means to be a lifesaving church: to embody the undeniable Love of Christ for every human being.
So I charge you with this. Embody that love. Be unafraid, and pour out your resources on the most vulnerable among us in service to Christ. And you cannot go wrong. Amen.
Opening Prayer: a Poem in Negotiating Shadows: Daily Meditations for Lent (Chalice Press, 2010), by Rachael Keefe. Source of the second reading in this service.
Stress in America Press Release, October 2022 (American Psychological Association). Source of the data that 27% of U.S. Americans are so stressed out most days they cannot function.
Suicide Prevention Gets a New Lifeline, January/February 2023 Monitor on Psychology. Source of the realization among psychologists that suicide is less of a mental health problem and more of a social one, with structural racism as a primary cause.