St. Mark's Episcopal Church

124 North Sylvia Street - Montesano, WA, 98563

Epiphany 4, January 28

This one is hard.

Our Gospel reading today comes from the first chapter of Mark, toward the beginning of Jesus’ story. In last week’s Gospel, Jesus called his first disciples, and they have now walked to Capernaum. In today’s reading, it is the Sabbath. Jesus takes the disciples to Temple, and while there He takes the opportunity to teach. Mark tells us that the people were amazed. No doubt they had heard good messages before, but this was different: the people recognize His authority. And He was just getting started.

While Jesus is preaching, a man Mark describes as being “possessed by an impure spirit” approaches Jesus. The spirit says that he knows that Jesus is the son of God and asks Jesus why He is there. He asks, what do you want with us? Have you come to destroy us? I have various thoughts about who “us” is in that statement: is us referring to the group? To spirits? To the man and the spirit together? Jesus does not directly answer the spirit’s question (when did he ever?). He instead orders the spirit to leave the man, and it does. Jesus doesn’t kill the spirit, he just “quiets” it. The people are amazed.

Unlike many other times in the early portion of Mark, however, Jesus does not tell the people not to repeat what has happened in their presence. And Mark tells us that news of this event spread throughout Galilee. This is one of two instances in which Jesus encounters a spirit. In the other, told in Mark 5, Luke 8 and Matthew 8, Jesus was again met by a man (in the Matthew version, it is two men), again asking “what have you to do with us, Son of God?” In this encounter, those possessed asked Jesus to cast them into a herd of pigs, which Jesus does, and the pigs run off a cliff and drown in the sea. Word of this encounter also spreads. Matthew 8 tells us that the city then met with Jesus and begged him to leave town!

So what do we make of these two stories? In both, the “possessed person” approaches Jesus. In both, they ask Jesus what he wants with them. And both times, Jesus releases the spirit from the person. Perhaps the most common interpretation of these events is that they represent the classic confrontation of good and evil. Jesus came to the world to rid it of evil, but that job will not be complete until Jesus returns. A very conservative Anglican priest I know and greatly respect posted on Facebook the other day a message (on a black background), which says: The Bible is very clear about witchcraft and sorcery. Do not touch it. Transcendental meditation, tarot, oracle cards, breath work, yoga, crystals, runes, pendulums, psychic readings, manifesting. Do not play with dark forces. Do not invite them in. Trust God alone. Forgive me for saying this, but if we are risking our place at the table because we do stretching exercises or breathe in a weird way, we are underestimating the love of God. I have another suggestion.

It seems to me that a logical interpretation of these stories is that Jesus is encountering mental illness. Notice in our reading today Jesus “quiets” the spirit. He does not destroy it. Worldwide, common mental disorders affect one in five adults. Major mental disorders affect somewhere between 1 and 7 percent of adults. Half of all mental disorders begin by the age of 14. One out of 300 suffers from schizophrenia, which could well be what the people observed as “spirits.” Because mental disorders begin early in life and tend to be chronic, they represent the leading cause of disability worldwide. Fully one third of all years lived with disability are due to mental illness. And it shortens lives: live expectancy is reduced by ten to twenty years for those suffering from major mental disorders. And mental disorders disproportionately affect those who are disadvantaged or marginalized in our society, the poor, homeless, prisoners, and others. It is generally those who have the least whom suffer the most.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus blesses the poor in spirit, the meek, those who thirst for righteousness, and the merciful. He spends time with prostitutes and tax collectors. Lawyers? Not so much.

As Christians, what do we find that the Gospels have to tell us about mental health? Jesus’ miracles, especially the stories of His healing of the people, were demonstrations of the coming of His kingdom. We are told that he healed many people, but only these two stories we discuss today sound like a healing of mental illness. The men with “demons” were restored. I am not here today to get on a political soapbox and state the obvious: that we marginalize the mentally ill in our society. Various passages of the Gospels suggest we have always done that. These are big problems beyond the ability of our little group in Montesano to solve. However, we all have a Christian duty to do what we can to help those around us. This fulfillment of our Christian vocation is certainly not easy. We are called to put God’s kingdom before everything. Helping others is an intrinsic part of that.

I want to share a couple of ways in which I have encountered mental illness on my journey. First, one of my responsibilities as a deputy prosecutor has been to represent the state in mental health court. My role is to obtain court orders for involuntary commitment to mental hospitals for people in distress. If a person cannot care for their basic human needs, or pose a threat to themselves, to others, or to the property of others, they can be detained against their will. The court proceeding seeks to ensure that those persons receive treatment, but also that their rights are respected, as court is required after 120 hours, 14 days, 90 days, and every 90 days after that. It is essentially psychiatric triage: when the person becomes stabilized they are released. The sad part is, there are many “frequent fliers” whom cycle through the process over and over again, with little in the way of services available to help them navigate their paths.

I have a friend I will call R. R and I met many years ago. R was working in the marketing department of a major grocery chain. I don’t remember the circumstances of how we met other than it was through that work R was doing. R later left that employment. All that R told me was that R was on disability and living with their son. I met the son on one occasion. A scary individual with a violent criminal history. Some time after I left Bellingham R’s situation became more dire. We would continue to communicate through messenger programs. When I was in town for my daughter’s wedding in September, R and I met for coffee. R brought along some belongings, which seemed a little strange. We had a nice conversation. When it was over, R asked to be dropped off at a local wooded park. I did that. R asked if I would care for a couple of things, which were placed in my trunk. R then disappeared into the woods. I finally figured out that R was now homeless. When I returned to Bellingham over Christmas, I was to meet with R again. R didn’t show. Just as I was getting ready to leave town, I got a call from my messenger. It was a police officer, saying that R was in the back of his patrol car and had identified me as legal counsel. I can’t do that, but I worked things out with the officer, found a lawyer to help, and tried to get things situated. I have tried to help R. I have tried to give money. I have tried to provide housing. I have also just been there and listened. It is only the listening and friendship that has been accepted. And I have continued with that even as I think more is needed. It is clear that R wants the dignity of doing things alone, even when it is clear that isn’t working. R is now in the “base camp” homeless area in Bellingham.

The frustrating part is that there are few services for those that are not acutely ill enough to obtain hospitalization, but at the same time are not truly able to provide adequately for themselves. I pray for R every day. Jesus calls us to help all of his children. Sometimes it is hard to figure out how. But we are commanded to keep trying. Amen.