In the gospel lesson, we find the crowds, perhaps even Jesus’ own family, accusing and worrying that Jesus is out of his mind! Things have gotten out of control and Jesus might have gotten a bit more here! What should we do!? They find themselves wondering. What is Jesus doing!!
The complexities of family are not glossed over in anyway. In fact, Jesus suggests that there were times that perhaps, even his own family might have gotten in the way of his ministry, instead of supporting it. We want to imagine that our families are always the most supportive places, and yet we know the realities that sometimes that our places of origins sometimes hold the deepest complexities as was the truth for Jesus.
Family dynamics can be some of our deepest challenges. Mental health dynamics often find their crucible in the family of origin. Jesus is no exception. His return home made everyone nervous, even raising the question of who is family? Even on the last day of his life, Jesus hung on the cross, looking for someone to care for his mother. Households can be full of divisions, especially the kind that you would rather not be public and that you’d rather be resolved. Does this sound familiar? Don’t worry. I am not making anyone raise their hands today.
In this season after Easter, we have begun a new series of sermons. On the strength of Karl Barth, the German theologian, we are taking the proverbial newspaper in one hand and Bible in the other. We are looking at some of the most important issues of our time. We are asking ourselves what does the Bible say about the issues in our news media. How does our faith inform our understandings?
Our newspaper story for this week comes as a sister reflects on the life of her brother, after his addiction and mental health crisis. After receiving a high energy phone call a few years back from her co-executive producer brother a few days before her wedding that he was a drug addict and he would be entering rehab, she shares the title of the book: Everything is Horrible and Wonderful. The family supports Harris Wittels for the next two years as he cycles through rehabs. The disease overcame him. He died by overdose. Sister, Stephanie Wittels Wachs, and her parents each handle their impact differently. Her mother speaks in schools about her grief and has created support groups. Stephanie has written this book. Her father is solidarity and needs space to process. (1) But mental health of each one of us impacts widely our families and our communities.
The implicit question that Wachs struggles with throughout the interview is inclusion. Is it gentler when her brother struggles with addictive behaviors away from her sight or when he is a part of her life? This is a difficult question. But a familiar struggle for every family member who has ever walked this path. To Include is to compromise as part of a whole. We are not wholly the full body of Christ with each and every one of us, including those of us who are struggling with depression and schizophrenia and bipolar, manic episodes, PTSD, addiction, and other ways of being that could exclude our brothers and sisters from being fully part of our community.
As a Christian community, we believe deeply in the redemptive power of Jesus Christ. The author C.S. Lewis, known more widely for his books on Narnia has written compellingly on suffering. A short reflection entitled, The Problem of Pain, he articulates that suffering is specifically challenging for those of us who understand that God is good. This necessarily begins to mean that suffering is in the shadow of the One of suffers and points us towards resurrection and towards resurrection deeper meaningful, even if the event itself, may seem to have no deeper meaning. (2) Addiction, darkness, depression, mental illness, and other sufferings are difficult and trying times, in need of God’ presence and the inclusion and support of community.
So, what do we do? The epistle from Philippians is not an off handed or shortsighted response to imitate and encourage us to be happy. This is not the “don’t worry be happy” response. Paul wrote to the church at Philippi encouraging them with a sense of joy, which is different, then happiness. Happiness depends on circumstance. Joy depends on God. Joy sits deep in our soul and waits out the quick changes. Joys does not change with the day. Joy lets the moments come and go. Joy knows that in the end God has all for the God’s glory. Rejoice! Rejoice in the Lord always!
Are Christians crazy? Believing in a God of love and grace will sometimes make us look “crazy” to others. It is no wonder that one of the first recorded responses to Jesus was thinking that Jesus might need some additional support – he might be crazy.
How quick we are to judge! We are all armchair psychologists. Each of us is sure that we can diagnose and medicate, recommend, and counsel from across the street and over a cup of coffee. Even in the days of Jesus and prior, judgement and stigma hurt. We know that stigma cripples our brothers and sister often as dramatically as the symptoms of any specific illness. On this Jesus leads the way boldly. There was no one above and below, the touch or the attention of Jesus. And yet, we have become easy excluders. What does it look like for us to follow Jesus as includers, instead of excluders here?
For seasons in our country, we have imagined that removal from the community was the healthiest model for families. And there are times and seasons in which this is indeed the case. However, most often, disconnection for a community often causes more harm to a human psyche that and promotes health. In multiple communities I have served, simple steps towards inclusion have yield beautiful results. Both here and in Hellertown, having our friends with developmental disabilities as a part of the worshipping community have brought light and hope to all involved. Every time that our friends greeted one another, smiles lingered, handshakes pumped extra, and love extended. These are ways in which we include and extend in pragmatic and appropriate ways.
Those ways of inclusions are first in worship, but we can not imagine that is where it will end. In the United Methodist Church, we hold to our beliefs by articulating them in multiple ways. Every four years, our General Conference articulates our beliefs in a Book of Resolutions. In 2016, we articulated the following: “We oppose the use of jails and prisons for incarceration of persons who have serious, persistent mental illnesses for whom treatment in a secure hospital setting is far more appropriate(3).”
Darkness is a frightening experience and may have many manifestations. We pray for each of us who know darkness, our family members, and our larger community, who know this story. The National Mental Health Advisory Council estimates 22.9 percent of adults in a particular year suffer from a diagnosable psychiatric disease. They estimate 7-9 million children suffer from long term mental illness. The three largest categories for adults are depression, bipolar and schizophrenia. Depression might be described as a loss of interest in what might usually bring joy. Bipolar Disorder could be described as cycling between painful lows and exhilarating highs. Schizophrenia includes symptoms of paranoia and delusions. All of these require the diagnosis and care of medical professionals.(4)
Last summer, when our family visited Williamsburg, we spent some time in the Public Hospital. The “Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds” had the first patient admitted in October 12, 1773. This was the first organization of its kind in North America housing 24 persons, men and women. Prior, families and churches had solely had the responsibility for caring for the those whose mental health needed additional support. (5) What was most striking was the struggle to provide space for the families to visit their loved ones while they were at the hospital. The docents spoke of the care of some families who brought meals and blankets, visited, and made a difference.
Our community encircles and includes one another, not because we are perfect, but because we merely are created and loved by God. Jesus did not come to remove suffering or to explain it again, but rather to fill that suffering with his presence. The presence of Jesus is known through the body of Christ. Jesus, calls you and Jesus call me, to include and encircle those who have been excluded from the body because of mental illness. Draw them into the church. Know that you are loved and beloved.
This is the Gospel, the good news of Lord Jesus Christ, thanks be to God, Amen.
(2) Problem of Pain by C. S Lewis, 1940.
(3) United Methodist Book of Resolutions
(4) Darkness is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness by Kathryn Green McCreight, 2015.
New Testament Lesson: Philippians 4:1-7
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Gospel Lesson: Mark 3:20-27
And the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.