Do you think John the Baptizer was mentally ill?
Do you think maybe Jesus’ family said on occasion,
“Cousin John is a bit odd, bless him!”
We now know that one in four people will experience a mental health problem.
Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia
can affect anyone at any time, and it’s likely
that many people in our congregation have been affected.
So why not John?
After all, the backstory tells us that his parents were quite elderly,
a recognized risk factor for possible schizophrenia.
Many of the people we read about in Bible stories
might today be considered as having mental health issues.
It has long been thought that King Saul, in the books of Samuel,
was displaying mood swings that suggest he had bi-polar disorder.
Some think that Paul’s Damascus Road experience
was the result of some sort of breakdown or psychotic episode.
And of course there are the people Jesus encounters who are possessed of demons.
Jesus himself was not immune to accusations about his mental health –
there is a story in the gospel of Mark that tells how his mother and siblings
attempted to have him committed because they were afraid that he had lost his mind.
Some may find these suggestions disturbing or even offensive;
I hope you will trust that this is certainly not my intent.
Perhaps we need rather to ask why it would be so terrible
to think that some of our most inspirational ancestors in faith
might have experienced mental health illness!
Do we mistakenly believe that God cannot or will not work through these people?
Do we transfer our judgment of the capacity of others onto God?
Do we think that mental illness is a condition that makes these people
less able to do God’s work, more unlikely to be able to articulate spiritual truth,
or incapable of meaningful participation in worship?
And who do we think “these people” are?
As I just said, statistics show us that one in four people
suffer from mental health illness during their lives.
That figure is based on those who ask for help; the true figure is likely to be even higher. This means that in a congregation of our size, roughly 175 people,
at least 42 members will have experienced or will be experiencing mental health issues.
That includes the clergy, too!
Such conditions are part of normal human living;
in addition to chronic neural afflictions,
they are often triggered by life experiences such as grief, trauma and loss,
things that happen to all of us, and when they do none of us should have to
suffer in silence for fear of what others might think or say!
Yet nearly nine out of ten people affected by mental health illness still say
they have faced stigma and discrimination as a result of disclosing their situation.
Often people say the stigma is as bad as the symptoms of the illness itself.
Stigma and discrimination ruin lives –
they stop people from taking part in family, social and community life,
stop people from working who want to and can work,
and even stop people from seeking help.
We need to be clear that mental illnesses are real conditions that occur in real people –
they are not a sign of weakness or an excuse;
they involve real suffering and need real understanding and appropriate responses,
just like any other condition we might develop.
Those who suffer don’t need judgmental attitudes like “Pull yourself together”
or easy-answer platitudes like “I know just how you feel.”
What is needed is a safe space and a listening ear –
and not being talked to as though you are only the illness and not a whole human being. A problem shared can be a problem cut in half if the friend is actually listening.
As those pledged in our baptismal covenant to respect the dignity of every human being,
our church must be a place of welcome, friendship and acceptance.
It is our task to educate ourselves about mental health illness
and to make sure that our welcome is appropriate
and that no-one who enters our church experiences prejudice or feels stigmatized.
There are lots of organizations that can help us do this, like NAMI of Dakota County,
and I’m sure there are people here who may be connected to those organizations
and can guide us. Are we willing to step up to the task?
The issue affects us in another way as well. Did you know:
- On any given night in Dakota County, there are 60 - 90 identified homeless families that are unsheltered, doubled-up or staying at Dakota Woodlands Emergency Shelter.
- Annually, there are at least 200 homeless families served through the emergency shelter and homeless rental subsidy programs available through Dakota County.
- Annually, there are at least 200 families who are homeless and request assistance from Dakota County but cannot be served because the shelter is full or they are ineligible for existing resources.
- About half of the homeless families being served by the four key homeless programs have characteristics or barriers that indicate they may be better served in permanent supportive housing that doesn’t have time limits and has more intensive services.
I could go on, but I think you get the point.
There’s no room in the inn, right here.
Homelessness exists whenever people lack safe, stable, and appropriate places to live.
Now, living in shelters or on the streets is certainly difficult,
even for a person whose brain is working “normally.“
But imagine what it is like for people with untreated psychiatric illnesses,
who make up fully 1/3 of the estimated homeless population:
for them, this kind of life is often a living hell.
Their quality of life is abysmal. Many are victimized regularly.
One study found that 28 percent of homeless people with previous hospitalizations obtained some food from garbage cans
and 8 percent used garbage cans as a primary food source.
If that’s not a reason to do everything we can
to continue giving to the Neighbors food shelf, I don’t know what is!
If that’s not a reason to do all in our power to lobby our city and state legislators
to provide those in need with adequate access to resources, I don’t know what is!
We are soon to observe our annual celebration of the birth of Jesus.
The traditional telling of that story portrays the savior of the universe
as coming into a world that is indifferent to his appearing,
that shut him out in the cold as people closed their hearts and homes
to a couple in need, that soon caused his family to flee their homeland
in order to seek asylum from persecution.
What are we willing to do, as individuals and as a congregation,
to turn this story around, to ensure that the world in our time and on our watch
is willing to extend welcoming hearts and hands,
a warm space to live, a safe environment for all if not a world at peace,
so that those in need may have the basic requirements for life?
What are we willing to do, as individuals and as a congregation,
to protect those whose inner or outer circumstances make them unable
to care for or protect themselves, be they native-born or immigrant?
I am convinced that there is a place for holy anger at injustice and disparity.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, it is not the religious act that makes the Christian,
but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.
Such participation—speaking out, taking action, creating change—
is a way of love that unifies, makes whole,
and lifts up what is fragmented and incomplete.
In taking up God’s righteous indignation we reflect the model of Jesus,
who reached out to those on the margins to heal their stigma
and restore them to community.
When we do the same we live out our inheritance as co-creators with God,
divinely empowered to act in the name of the One who is Love.
Just as Mark uses the word “immediately,”
in the gospels Jesus always uses the word “today:”
“Today you are healed…”
“Today this has been fulfilled…”
The word is used to underline the presence of God acting in the story of creation.
Now that word, that time comes to us.
Today we must take action to heal the world around us. And immediately.