Jesus and Mental Illness

Below is the sermon I gave today in chapel. I share it for those who struggle with mental illness and their loved ones, and for all of us who know someone impacted by mental illness.

Preached at the Chapel of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, June 12, 2018

Sermon on Mark 3:20-35
3:20 and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.
3:21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”
3:22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”
3:23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?
3:24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.
3:25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.
3:26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.
3:27 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.
3:28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter;
3:29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”–
3:30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
3:31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.
3:32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”
3:33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”
3:34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!
3:35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

The Jesus in Mark’s gospel is not a nice Jesus. He’s not a person you could take to a party and expect to have a good time. Nor is he the kind of guy who magically erases all the problems in your relationships, particularly with your family. In fact, he disowns his family in the text we heard this morning.

I have to confess, I could see the appeal of this Jesus when I was growing up. There were definitely moments I wished I could magically say—this is not my family—my family members are those who do the will of God—some other group of people that I could identify with and associate with. This was a Jesus I could follow, and who could also get me out of having to deal with my own family.

But now, I am a mother. I have children who are growing up far faster than I ever could have imagined. And hearing Jesus say these words gives me a very different feeling: Ouch! Jesus, you can’t really mean that, can you? You can’t really disown your family like that—your own mother? and brothers and sisters?

But the Jesus we read in Mark will not conform to our needs or expectations. He will not support our comfortable assumptions of what he came to be and do. And that’s hard for me. I think it’s hard for all of us.

I, like Jesus’ family in this text, kind of want to restrain him. To say he’s not quite right in the head. That he can’t really mean what he is saying here. I, like the scribes in these verses, want to say that this version of Jesus is a bit out of touch with reality. Perhaps he is possessed.

This is definitely not the Jesus I want to introduce to my children. If your church is doing Vacation Bible School this summer, this is perhaps not the story you want to use. Can you imagine? At the end of the week of VBS, dozens of school-aged children coming home to their parents to say: “Who is my mother? Whoever does the will of God is my mother and brother and sister.” We can’t take this Jesus out in public!

Reading this text, I really sided with the people on the opposite side of Jesus. I could relate to his mother and the scribes, taking their perspective.

And on a personal level, this is partly because it made me think of my own family growing up, where I had more than one family member who was severely mentally ill. The one with schizophrenia, my sister Catherine, started showing signs as a teenager, and then began losing touch with reality as a young adult, and now, as has been the case for the past twenty years, with struggles to find the right medication and to keep her taking it, my parents and the rest of my siblings have come to accept that she may never get better. And there have been times, when like Jesus’ family, we have tried to restrain her, and moments when I have wondered if she were possessed by demons.

So you see, I really found myself on the opposite side of the Jesus we read in Mark this morning, thinking: if Jesus had been acting like my sister, then his family was only doing their job of trying to care for him and protect him, and I can’t blame the scribes for giving him the label of demon possession. It’s what any sane person might do.

But Jesus is not ill with a major mental illness. At least, not that we know of.

But then again, what if he did struggle with mental illness? Maybe it was not as obvious as my sister’s schizophrenia, but what if he struggled nonetheless? Mental illness such as anxiety and depression affect at least one in five adults living in the United States, which may be a low estimate, so if Jesus indeed was fully human, what if a struggle with mental illness came with that humanity?

He surely shows signs of it along the way—he tends to withdraw and try to avoid contact with people. He can’t take a compliment here in Mark’s gospel—all the good things people say about him, he just insists that they keep quiet about it—maybe he can’t see what an amazing person he is, much like people who are consumed by the self-doubt brought about by depression. And of course, there is that whole walking-into-death that he does. Predicting his death ahead of time, talking about it with his friends. These are signs that someone should have picked up on to try and get him some help.

The news this past week of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade’s suicides have raised again the high incidence of suicide, with news that rates of suicide have been increasing at an alarming rate. And while there are definitely linkages between mental illness and suicide, not everyone who commits suicide has mental illness, and not everyone with mental illness commits suicide. But it’s a haunting reminder: the threat and danger that each person can be to him or herself.

And that danger is not mitigated by all the love in the world.

Pastor Matt Gaventa, currently serving University Presbyterian Church here in Austin, wrote a sermon in 2014, soon after the suicide of comedian Robyn Williams, called “I’m Through With Love,” a sermon available online. He tells the story of his own father, who he describes as having disappeared without leaving the house, when Matt was 15. He reflects on how love was unable to protect his father from the disease that was depression, no matter how much he or his mother told his father he was loved, the voice of depression in his head would morph that into saying: “they would be better off without me.” Fortunately, Matt’s dad is still with him, and the depression has not won the battle. But his point was poignant: Love cannot break through the cold cement of depression. So loved ones who lose someone to suicide: it is never your fault. You could never have loved enough. The disease is too powerful.

As Jesus tells the crowd: “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” If an illness of the mind is actively working against the rest of who you are, you cannot stand. You need help. We need support. We may need medical interventions.

And I think it’s ok to look to Jesus’ family as a family who really loved Jesus and were worried about him. Sometimes, we do need to restrain our loved ones. Sometimes we need to take them to the hospital so they can get the care they need. Depression can as powerful as demon possession, and as faith leaders, we may not be able to drive out the demons that haunt our parishioners.

So what can we do? What can we do for our loved ones, for ourselves, for our faith communities, in light of the mental health crisis that is affecting our nation?

Two things. The first has to do with the body. Taking care of the bodies of our loved ones, of ourselves, encouraging those around us to take care of these bodies, since our mental health can often be compromised by our physical health. And I think it’s okay to do what Jesus’ family tried to do: to restrain him. And by that, I don’t mean a straightjacket, necessarily, though sometimes taking someone to a psychiatric hospital is necessary. But to restrain is also to hold tightly. To take in your own arms, to let them feel your touch. If you yourself are struggling, ask for someone to hold you. To physically have that contact that tells you: you are alive. This body is here, feeling sensations, able to communicate love through the skin. That these bodies deserve to be cared for and held and kept alive.

The second has to do with meaning. The meaning-making we do as ministers of word and sacrament. We minister—we serve—through our words. And through these sacraments. We make meaning. By the power of the God who created the earth and each and every one of us, we too have been given power to create. When you are depressed, or someone you love is depressed, meaning is often the first to go. Life has no meaning. Love has no meaning. Faith has no meaning. Success has no meaning. No meaning to life. And so the pain that is not readily pinned on anything, but is everywhere hopelessly present, ending this pain becomes its own meaning. The only meaning readily available.

But here is the weapon we have at our disposal. Here is the weapon we have been given to battle these demons. The weapon of meaning is the gift of this calling: trying to forge words of hope and life out of death. We have been given words from the Bible to take and mold into something we can point to ourselves: here—this is why life is worth living. Here—this is Good News. Here—at this table, where Christ’s body was broken and blood shed—this table gives us new life, puts into our mouth the taste of life to come, the promise of resurrection not in some after life but in the here and now.

Of course, our attempts to make meaning are never fool proof. We cannot give someone else meaning—they have to create it themselves. But we can try. We can try for ourselves, and we can try to give this daily bread to those we know who are suffering.

And in our worship, we can name the sins that drag us down and invite us to callousness. We can point to sin as not just something we do, but also something that is done to us. Naming sin as the internalized oppression so many feel not because of mental illness but because of societal injustice—the self-hatred imposed not by chemical imbalances but by messages of hate and rejection. This is Pride month, and we are reminded of the high suicide rates among LGBTQ teens and youth. Young children of color—under the age of 12—are more likely to commit suicide than white children of the same age. There is not a greater incidence of mental illness in some groups because of some hereditary predisposition. Women are not more likely to be depressed simply because they are somehow weaker than men. The sins of society are linked to our bodies and our minds.

So in our weekly worship, when we confess our sins, we do so not just as individuals, but as a society. We confess as people who are complicit in these larger systems that lead some to greater mental distress. And we confess how these sins impact us individually, how we, too, have been sinned against.

And in that confession, we are again, back to making meaning. We are confessing what is wrong in this world, what is wrong with us as a society, what is wrong with me. Chemical imbalances may help us to blame our biology, but sin language helps us to name the transcendence of the brokenness we experience. We sin, and we are sinned against. Depression and suicide are not “sins” in the way they have been used harmfully in the past—they are not sins persons commit—but they may reflect the sins of our larger society, the brokenness of humanity. And so we do not judge.

But we fight. We fight for life with all that we have within us. We fight to give meaning to ourselves, to our loved ones, to our communities of faith, using the words and sacraments given to us by God, hoping like hell to win the battle. We hold onto one another, holding each other’s bodies with the reminder that we need all of us to fight against the evil of this world. And we hold onto the meaning-making that is our calling. Fight the good fight. Have courage. Amen.

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