For I was hungry, and you fed me

 November 23, 2014
Susan Farrell

May the words from my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight O Lord, Amen

Good Morning. When Father Ross and Reverend Andrea approached me to provide today’s sermon I was flattered but also apprehensive. Here at St James we enjoy a very rich oral tradition with our sermons. From the quick wit of Reverend Andrea to the thought provoking challenges of Father Ross to the wonderful guest sermons of Reverends Shaw and Byers to the slam poetry of Kiera Sandrock, these are all very tough acts to follow. However, Father Ross assured me that we each bring something different to this role. So this morning is my opportunity to speak about today’s readings and how they fit the work that I do outside of Sunday mornings and to offer some reflections on our roles as Christians in the world in which we live.

Many of you may recognize me from the back corner of the church. My main job on a Sunday morning is to corral Caroline and Allison (and sometimes Roger) but one of my other key roles the rest of the week is that I am a Clinical Psychologist and the Clinical Director of the Community Mental Health Program at the Royal Ottawa Hospital. We are a program that delivers our services to persons with mental health problems outside of the hospital. We see people in drop-in centres, soup kitchens, HIV clinics, homeless shelters and even in their homes. We so strongly believe in mental health services belonging right in the community that our offices are not in the hospital – they are in carlingwood shopping centre. The reason we went to a shopping centre is simple yet profound – in a shopping mall, we are all equal members of our community. Many of my patients tell me that in the mall they could be anyone – their mental health does not define them when they stand in line at Tim Horton’s or get off the bus at Sears or shop at Loblaws – they are anyone in the community – anyone and everyone.

In many ways, this is the message of today’s gospel reading. Jesus says that when he was hungry he was fed, when sick he was cared for, when he was a stranger he was welcomed. What is so interesting is that those who cared for him did not necessarily realize they had cared for Jesus and those who ignored his needs were indignant when told of their oversight, stating that they did not know it was the Lord whom they had ignored. Surely if they knew it was someone important, then they would have acted differently. But that is the key issue. In fact, it is the response to both people – those who cared for Jesus without seeing him directly by caring for people living life on the margins without a thought to who they were, and to those who didn’t care for those people but who would have changed their behaviour if they knew it was the Lord – that is so very interesting. Jesus said “truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me or just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me”.

So in today’s 2014 world what does that mean to me as a Clinical Psychologist that I would I like to share with you? Some of the folks in today’s world who are hungry are known to us. We have a strong history at St James of supporting the food bank, Manotick diners and other meal programs. The Anglican Diocese of Ottawa has offered unwavering support in addressing homelessness by operating Cornerstone, Booth Street, 2nd stage housing in which we have a room financed by the dedication and generosity of St James’ parishioners, and a drop-in centre (Centre 454) that is 25 years strong in providing support to those on the street. I am proud to work in all of these agencies and to see the support of the diocese in action. I am also so very proud to be a parishioner of St James for these and the countless other Christmas Outreach and community giving efforts we do all year. This is feeding and housing many of God’s people – many of our people, our brothers and our sisters.

Homelessness in a rich city like Ottawa is often confusing – it must be a small problem, just the 1 or 2 men we see panhandling in the market? No, in 2012 there were 7308 individuals and family members who used a homeless shelter in Ottawa, the average length of stay was 68 days for a single person and 88 days for a family – this is more than double the length of stay 6 years ago. When I started to work in homelessness in the late 1990’s a homeless family was a very rare thing – now it is one of the fastest growing parts of the homeless population. Forget any stereotype the media has given you – the fastest growing groups of people who experience homelessness in our city are families who cannot pay the rent or people with mental illness who find little to no compassion when they look for housing or employment. We know some of the solutions to ending this type of homelessness but the need for a look at societal economics is conversation for another time. However as Christians, I ask you to consider advocating for equality. We are the only G8 country without a housing policy and we spend less than 3% of our health budget on mental health.

I have spent every night of my life securely sleeping a warm bed. For many years I had loving parents tuck me in at night and now I have the pleasure of tucking in my own family. Why is that privilege given to me but not to all Canadians? Jesus said “just as you do for the least of those who are members of my family you did it for me”. Could it be in 2014 this is a place where we find his face?

Now, be clear that I am not trying to turn my sermon today into a call for action for better funding for housing or mental health services (although I would be happy if any of you could action that asap). No, I am speaking about who in our world today needs our care and compassion. It is people who are homeless, but not only people who are homeless.

In the gospel it is important to note that Jesus did not just talk about who fed or clothed those in God’s family, but he clearly stated I was sick and you took care of me, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Mental health problems are not something that happen only to people who are homeless or to only those people who are far removed in lifestyle and geography from St James’. Mental health problems will happen to at least 1 in 5 of us – 1 in 5. The World Health Organization says that mental health problems are more common than all forms of cancer put together. But do we treat people with mental health problems they way we treat people with cancer? Not usually. Cancer is a terrible disease for which we all hope cures are found quickly. People with cancer are rightfully called survivors – because they are. But consider the language used in mental health – she had a breakdown, she’s gone nuts, she’s losing it, he has a screw loose  – no part of this language is positive or reveals the struggles of a person with mental health problems. Nothing suggests that they too are a survivor and deserve our compassion. We often hug a person when we learn of their physical health problems to offer our support but stand back from the person with mental health problems – another action to increase their loneliness.   In physical health problems we see many symptoms we don’t like – bleeding, vomiting and the list goes on. In mental health problems we often see symptoms in anger or odd behavior or substance use but we blame the person and their weak character, not the illness for those symptoms. Why? We don’t blame the person who is bleeding for his symptoms? Mental illness is not a choice but we can make a choice in how we support its survivors.

As a Psychologist who has diagnosed and treated most of the major mental health problems in the past 15 years I can tell you what one symptom that all mental health problems share – it is the only one no one told me about in text books – the symptom is loneliness – extreme loneliness. How often do we know or suspect someone is having a hard time but we stop ourselves from really reaching out because we don’t know what to say or we’re worried we will say the wrong thing? What if we wanted to just sit and share our time with someone having big or even small mental health problems? Just trying to show we care by simply saying – I am here – I am not sure what to say but I really care – is there anything I can do to show you I want to support you? All things we can say that would make people feel closer to us and not like strangers who are struggling alone.

The research tells us that most people who end their life by suicide having left a note talk about how alone they felt in the world. How they felt that no person or no place welcomed them during their time of sadness or despair. The saddest news I have for Christians is that Christmas (our most joyful holiday) is the time of year with the highest rates of suicide and this is due, in large part, because of loneliness.

What about reaching out when someone is just having a really tough moment? It doesn’t need to be a major mental illness it could just be an incredibly bad moment. Let me tell you about one of my favourite strangers. When Caroline was a 9 week old baby Roger and I had been in Toronto to visit our families for Christmas. Roger drove back to Ottawa to get back to work and I stayed longer to visit. The afternoon that Caroline and I were due to fly home, our flight hit delay after delay after delay. In fact our flight was delayed over 8 hours. Suddenly it was almost midnight and I had a very tired baby who had trouble sleeping in a busy airport and I was a very tired (and very stressed) new mom who was all alone. As we boarded the plane my sweet Caroline started to wail – and I mean wail – and it was quite clear she had no plans of stopping any time soon. All of my fellow passengers had also been delayed over 8 hours and they did not hide their irritation that now this flight would have a screaming baby aboard. There were comments around me about me changing planes, many loud sighs, looks of irritation and lots of tired people who were really, really upset. As you can imagine, my stress level got very high very quickly. I felt very alone and rather helpless as all my tricks to quiet a baby wore out hours ago and I just wanted to cry – all by myself on a plane that had just announced yet another weather delay. All of a sudden, a very tall stranger with a booming voice many rows behind me yelled out “it’s ok there mom, everybody here is just forgetting they were once a crying baby too. You have a very cute baby – I hope she has a good flight”. Well –imagine the change in mood on that plane! No one dared to shoot me an irritated look, or to give a sigh now. In fact, many people either gave me looks of sympathy or shared stories of how to comfort a baby. Caroline is now a fantastic traveller but 11 years later I will never forget that stranger. I don’t remember what he looked like and we never spoke, but I was alone and he welcomed me – I was a fellow passenger, not an outsider. I was in need and he took care of me – with a simple act of understanding and the courage to speak up and change the views of others.

We do not need to be mental health professionals or service providers or significant philanthropists to live Matthew’s gospel. Every time we extend some understanding to someone, every time we cast aside a quick judgement and every time we see everyone as people – as one of us – not one of them – we are doing what Jesus asked of us. How rich the lives of people I know with mental health problems would be if we all did a bit more to extend our caring to spend time with them and to decrease their loneliness. How rich our own lives would be. Jesus tells us not to consider to whom we show this compassion – there are no people who are lesser than or greater in his eyes – should there be in ours?

I have always been a back corner of the church Christian. I have attended church regularly all my life. I attended an excellent Anglican church in Mississauga as a child and youth, but when it came to my faith it was there but I wasn’t going to shout it from a mountain top much less preach a sermon. However, it is this gospel reading of doing onto others as we would do unto Jesus (wherever we find him – in a homeless shelter, in someone with mental health issues, in someone having a sad moment, in someone feeling lonely) that is the very definition of my career as a Psychologist and our calling as Christians. In life, we know deep down that we are not defined by our titles, our bank accounts, our degrees, our certificates or any other accomplishment. We are defined by how we treat one another and how we truly give parts of ourselves to others to meet their needs, not ours.

In last week’s service the collect had a beautiful line – give us courage to use our talents as generously as you have given them.  Each of us has a talent to provide for the needs of others in a unique way but if often takes a bit of courage to really use the talent. If you are not sure how you can use your talents, ask in prayer – in the little moments of Christian caring or understanding or the big actions of someone like Peg Herbert from yesterday’s breakfast or our own parishioner Ivy Dunn, the most important mental health nurse of the 20th century, or many others, God knows how he wants you to care for the members of his family. God will give you the talents and power you need to do that work if you really listen to his call. In fact, it is my favourite line of the doxology we say every week with which I want to end my remarks today – glory to god whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. AMEN

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