Jesus Knows Our Needs

John 14:18 – May 21, 2017

John 14-18 not leave you, coin

“Jesus Knows Our Needs”

Today in our service, we focus on Mental Health and Mental Illness. All across the United States, one in four people are affected by mental health issues each year. Whether the health difficulty is mild, moderate or serious, still—one in four people have challenges or difficulties that affect their daily lives. And if you add the families and loved ones of those who are affected, you are talking about a lot of people! Often times, people with mental health challenges do not have much to look forward to, and not much hope at all.

In our Gospel reading from John 14, Jesus gives us all some hope and comfort.

This reading is from Thursday night in the Passion week, the night before Jesus was crucified. Jesus knew He was going away. He told His disciples so. However, Jesus tells His friends about a Helper He is going to send when He is gone: “16 And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept Him, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. But you know Him, for He lives with you and will be in you.”

Jesus promised us to leave us another Advocate—another Helper. We will explore Jesus’s message to all of us for those times when we are feeling alone, afraid, separate and isolated. Just like people who are dealing with mental illness. Just like their loved ones, too.

The disciples still don’t understand a lot of what Jesus was telling them. Even though He had been with them for many months, even years, they still do not get it. Of course, we have better understanding of what Jesus told them in that Upper Room, looking back on it from our fuller point of view, today. But even now, many people have a challenging time figuring out exactly what Jesus was saying. Helper? Advocate? Spirit from God? What is that all about?

In a magazine, Vision New England’s Ministries with the Disabled, a minister writes “How many families in your [acquaintance] have a loved one who struggles with a serious, acute or chronic mental health issue?” Carlene Hill Byron says that “Someone is probably hurting and they’re afraid to tell you.” [1]

NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is the largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness. NAMI teaches us that “Mental illnesses are medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.” [2]

Do you think Jesus understands how we feel? How about everyone, absolutely every person—does Jesus know how each one of us feels? What about individuals who are suffering from major depression? What about schizophrenia? Bipolar disorder? Obsessive compulsive disorder? How about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Are all of these afflictions diseases that Jesus understands? Can He come alongside of each of us, in whatever mental state we happen to be in? Or, will Jesus desert us, like so many people do who just do not understand us?

The next verses in John 14: “18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see Me anymore, but you will see Me.”

Where Jesus mentions “I will not leave you as orphans,” that is exactly what He said, and exactly what He meant. “Orphan” (orphanos) “was a common metaphor to describe disciples left without their masters.” [3] Dr. O’Day mentions a special poignancy in Jesus’s words here, where He talks about a special family relationship He has with His friends and disciples. Especially here in the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to His friends as “little children.”

“I will not leave you as orphans.” Sometimes, in this imperfect life, things happen. Loved ones die. Listen to this personal recollection from the Rev. Dr. Anna Hosemann-Butler: “Orphaned. Alone. Without guidance. Without support. Without parents. Without anyone. Mostly, “orphaned” means being so isolated in this world that it feels like no one cares whether or not we live or die. Orphaned. Really depressing. At least, it can be—and terrifying, too.

“Although an image of children first comes to mind when we use that word, any of us can be orphaned at any age. In fact, on any given day, a lot of us are orphaned, at least in spirit.

I lost my father to cancer when I was eight years old, and so became a “half-orphan,” and thus appropriately half-terrified.

“I became a child who on the surface was fine, but inside was frantic in my love for my mother, always on the edge of panic where her well-being was concerned, desperately afraid that something would happen to her and I would be completely alone in the world. Anxious fear was a constant childhood companion. There was no way around it, it seemed.” [4]

Imagine fear and anxiety like that, every single day. Dr. Hosemann-Butler describes her childhood feelings so vividly here as she relates how filled with panic and anxiety she was at the sense of being orphaned. I suspect many, many people with mental illness go through similar feelings of panic, fear, anxiety, and loneliness. It is not just fear and desperation at being left alone for people with mental illnesses, but it’s also a dark cloud of stigma that surrounds them. Many times, they can be unfairly labeled, bullied at school or work, excluded or shunned in social situations, and marginalized in many different ways.

But, Jesus never does any of those things. Can anyone imagine our Lord Jesus bullying someone? Or, shunning anyone? Certainly not! He would be likely to go out to the parking lot or in back by the alley, where the shunned and excluded ones are hanging out. Just as Jesus thought of His friends and disciples as His children, that is the same way He thinks of any of His modern-day friends and followers, too.

Remember what Jesus reminds us: “16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth.” Even though Jesus might have known He was ascending to heaven in just a few weeks, He knew the Holy Spirit would come to be with the disciples. Just as Jesus promised, the Holy Spirit is with us today as well, indwelling us and coming alongside of us.

I would like to encourage all of us, today—be friends for someone who is hurting, today. Come alongside of someone who struggles with mental illness, or one of their family members, today. Provide a warm welcome for these friends, so they don’t feel alone any more.

I want to reiterate: Jesus will not leave anyone as orphans—not grown ups, not children, not seniors, not people who are blind or deaf or with speech impediments, not people who are developmentally disabled, and not people with mental illnesses. No one. No one.

Remember Psalm 23, where King David talks of walking through the valley of the shadow? Sure, the road ahead may be dark sometimes, and take unexpected twists and turns, but the Holy Spirit will be right by our sides. Always. Jesus has promised, and we can take His word for it. Alleluia, amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

[1] A quotation from Carlene Hill Byron, from Vision New England Ministries with the Disabled, http://mhn-ucc.blogspot.com/p/mental-health-sunday.html   https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1-I-16TIdciVlprWldQOTEtdUE/edit , page 11.

[2]. http://mhn-ucc.blogspot.com/p/mental-health-sunday.html   https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1-I-16TIdciVlprWldQOTEtdUE/edit

[3] O’Day, Gail, The Gospel of John, The new Interpreter’s Bible: general articles & introduction, commentary, & reflections for each book of the Bible, Vol. 9 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 748.

[4]  http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Orphaned-Anna-Hosemann-Butler-05-20-2014 , “Orphaned?” Anna Hosemann-Butler, Edgy Exegesis, 2014.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Mental Illness, Mental Wholeness

“Mental Illness, Mental Wholeness”

luke-8-35-jesus-and-demoniac

Luke 8:35 – October 9, 2016

The focus of our service today is mental illness. The National Alliance for Mental Illness has designated this past week—the first week of October—as Mental Illness Awareness Week. On the back table in the narthex is a handout with some facts about mental illness and how to be understanding, how to be an advocate for those who suffer, and to their families and loved ones.

The Gospel reading for today is an extended one. We are going to look at it piece by piece during the sermon time today. Reading from the Gospel of Luke chapter 8, starting at verse 26: “Then [Jesus and the disciples] arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As[Jesus] stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met Him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.”

Let’s talk about the setting for this encounter—for it is a significant encounter in the life and ministry of Rabbi Jesus. Jesus and the disciples have crossed the sea of Galilee to the other side: the Gentile side. This is a non-Jewish town, in a non-Jewish area, the territory of the Decapolis. On top of that, the first person Jesus meets when He steps on land is a man with demons, unclean spirits, who lived in one of the most unclean places—among the tombs.

Continuing reading from Luke: “28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before Him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”—“ Abrupt, confrontational, in your face.

Can you see it, in your mind’s eye? Or on a screen inside your head? The man, with wild eyes, disheveled hair, tattered beard. No clothes, falling on his face in front of Jesus. He doesn’t go to anyone else, but he singles out Jesus—whom he names “Son of the Most High God.” Isn’t it interesting, amazing, that the demonized people can always recognize Jesus—the Son of the Most High God—and infallibly identify the Messiah for who and what He is, long before the other people surrounding Jesus can.

These encounters where Jesus deals with demons have been discussed for centuries. Many modern day interpreters and commentators think that these people who were “demonized” (a direct transliteration of the Greek term) suffered from mental illness. Regardless of what we think about these narratives, we know that these demons are often “forces that take hold of us and prevent us from becoming what God intends us to be.” [1] And yes, demons can be represented by self-loathing and self-destructive words, actions, habits and thoughts.

The Reverend Jean Hite had some fascinating insights into this Gospel reading. She notes that “All the demons that Jesus confronts in the Gospel stories have three things in common:

  • First:  Demons cause self-destructive behavior in their victim.
  • Second:  The victim feels like he’s trapped – trapped in his life situation.
  • And third:  The demons keep the victim from living a normal, happy life in his family or community – the demons separate the victim from family and community.” [2]

Dr. Luke gives us some back story. “Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)” Superhuman strength this man displayed! A demon, or mental illness—whatever it was in the first century, whatever it is today, Jesus faces down the situation and the affliction fearlessly.

Dr. Luke continues with the encounter: “30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged [Jesus] not to order them to go back into the abyss.” A Roman legion had anywhere from 3000 to 6000 soldiers in it. Even if this was a great exaggeration, we are still talking about a whole lot of demons.

I want to interrupt to say that there could well be demons inhabiting this man. I am not denying the existence of demons and other spiritual forces. Not at all! However—I want to highlight the fact that throughout the centuries, people with any sort of mental challenge or mental illness have been incredibly misunderstood. Shunned. Excluded. Banished.

But, Jesus would not shun, would not exclude, would not banish anyone.

There is so much misinformation about mental illness, even today. It is amazing how many affected people are excluded. Astonishing how many live with the daily stigma of shunning, being ignored, or viciously teased.  Population studies tell us that people who are affected by mental illness are between 20 and 25 percent of the population. Not only schizophrenia and paranoia, but chronic depression, the autism spectrum, anxiety disorders, and obsessive compulsive disorders. One in four or one in five of the people in line with you at the grocery store, or at the bank, or filling the tank at the gas station. Everyone knows someone.

Back to Luke chapter 8: “32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So He gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.”

Remember, this was a non-Jewish area, so herds of pigs were common. Whatever expression or definition we give to the demons, they ask Jesus whether they can enter the pigs. He agrees, and immediately the whole herd drowns in the lake. This scares the living daylights out of the pig herders! “34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.”

I suspect that people had written off this scary, unbalanced man as a totally lost cause. Today, we know that many, many people with mental illness can be helped a great deal. It is a physical challenge, just like diabetes and the imbalance involving the pancreas.

Moreover, illnesses and challenges do not need to be visible. For example, I am very nearsighted. I correct that with contact lenses. There are any number of different therapies, as well as medication that can control mental illness and outbreaks. But, such a drastic healing in the first century? No wonder everyone was scared to death of Jesus!

36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So [Jesus] got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.”

Notice that Jesus wanted this healed man to stay where he was and tell his fellow townspeople about the marvelous things God has done! He was to tell his story. Be an evangelist.

Whether we are talking the first or the twenty-first century, we can all praise God—Jesus has come to heal our diseases, to free us from our bondage. Whether from sin, from demons, from mental illnesses. Jesus knows our sorrows and carries our griefs. Jesus comes alongside of us—all of us—and helps us to bear our heavy loads.

Whether the load is physical or mental, psychological or spiritual, Jesus gives a helping hand. Jesus shows up. All of which tells us that God is willing to go absolutely anywhere to come alongside, to free, sustain and heal those who are broken and despairing.

Alleluia, amen!

[1] https://jeanhite.wordpress.com/2013/06/23/a-power-greater-than-ourselves/

[2] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)