This is the day the Lord is made let us rejoice and be glad in it good morning everyone! Today in churches across the United Church of Christ sermons are focusing on this being the Health and Human Services Sunday. And today I would like for us to focus on the importance of mental health and the fact that mental health issues are health care issues impacting our country as seen in tragic situations involving death by suicide, mass shootings, domestic abuse, sexual assault and other issues that confront our day.
It was about this time 25 years ago, I was only three at the time, not really. It was a Sunday morning approximately 25 years ago. The Sunday school lesson in the hour preceding the 11 o’clock worship service had focused on the issue of abortion. Before the 11 o’clock service was over an older single-parent had gone into an office and had a temporary break with what was happening that morning. At the same time a young mother, whom I had met that week when she came into the office to ask about our preschool, had gone into the ladies’ restroom and had been found in a catatonic state.
The older single-parent had driven her daughter to have an abortion that week. The daughter felt the abortion was necessary and her only choice given her life situation. The trauma of driving the daughter to have an abortion of what would have been this woman’s first grandchild was traumatic and she was struggling with all that happened that week. The young mother who had gone into a catatonic state in the ladies’ restroom had to be taken by an ambulance to a mental health care hospitalization that day. We found out later that the young mother had been sexually assaulted at a nearby mall. In dealing with the sexual assault she and her husband sought another child. She believed that having another child would help them move on and she did conceive. Then she miscarried. It was Sunday morning what does one do? What does it take to make one whole?
In the gospel reading this morning Jesus is moving into Capernaum and the Sabbath comes and Jesus does what he always would do on the Sabbath he goes to the synagogue and begins teaching the gospel and they went to Capernaum and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and began to teach. And they were amazed at his teaching for he was teaching them as one having authority and not as the scribes and just then there was a man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit and he cried out saying what do we have to do with you Jesus of Nazareth have you come to destroy us I know who you are the holy one of God and Jesus rebuked him saying be quiet and come out of him and throwing him into convulsions the unclean spirit cried out with a loud voice and came out of him and they were all amazed so that they debated among themselves saying what is this a new teaching with authority he commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him and immediately the news about him went out everywhere into all the surrounding district of Galilee.
Now I’ve never had a Sunday morning service interrupted by someone screaming out at me in the middle of the sermon and you can imagine what it must have been like for Jesus as he’s teaching and in the middle of his lesson this individual, whom were told has an unclean spirit, cries out at him. The people are amazed that Jesus is teaching as one having authority. He’s not like the scribes who are experts in the law.
Jesus teaches with an authority that doesn’t come from being able to cite chapter and verse. He teaches as one having authority because it is real for him. It comes from his heart. No doubt when the young person cried out to Jesus in the middle of his teaching the young person had been ostracized by those in the synagogue. Oh, that’s just crazy Zephaniah and I use the name Zephaniah because I don’t think anyone here is named Zephaniah, so Zephaniah cries out and Jesus doesn’t reject him. Jesus doesn’t allow the ushers to come running down the isle of the synagogue to carry the young man away because he is acting crazed. He looks with compassion on the young man and commands the unclean spirit to leave. This wows the crowd and they believe the miracle is the casting out of the unclean spirit. They miss the most important lesson and that’s the power of Jesus’s love to transform, to set this individual free and to make him whole again.
Willa Cather in Death Comes for the Archbishop states, “Miracles seem to me to rest not so much upon healing power coming suddenly near us from afar but upon our perceptions being made finer so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there around us always.” Jesus sees the other as not someone to be rejected but as someone to be embraced with love and shown compassion, the first step toward being made whole. This is the miracle.
My cousin honored his father this week on what would have been his father’s 88th birthday. His father is my uncle for whom I am named John. This same uncle was uncle John to his wife’s nephew who is as opposite and other from me as one could be. He supports Trump believes Obama to be a criminal and thinks that things are going great in our country today. I might think he’s crazy and yet I am compelled to hold out God’s love for him as much as I pray for God’s love for me.
What does it take to make one whole? It takes being willing to receive the care and the love and compassion that others might offer and show toward us. The young man could have fled from the synagogue, the young man could have fled from the presence of the holy one of God, as he called Jesus. Yet instead he received Jesus’s love and compassion and in receiving that love and compassion he was made whole.
Ishmael Ruiz Millan is Director of Hispanic House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. He writes, “I was in Tijuana Mexico at El Parque del Mapa (the park of the map). I approached a man to ask if he wanted a meal. I introduced myself as a pastor. “I killed several people just for fun he screamed at me and if I want to, I can kill you right now in front of all these people.’
As I think back to this encounter I feel the shivers of my body again. After what felt like a long pause I responded like this I don’t know why you did all that but please know that God loves you and because I have experienced God’s love in my own life I can tell you that I love you too. This made him more upset and he started screaming in despair. No, no that is not possible. I am a bad person, no one can love me. Yes, I said God loves you and I love you.
Miraculously the man’s demeanor changed drastically. He held my arms and then started to cry. I asked if he would allow me to pray with him and he consented. Did he have a specific concern or request? Pray for my family, I have not seen them in years and I don’t think I will see them again. I prayed and when I finished he left without a word.” In those brief moments, the admitted killer allowed himself to experience God’s love and compassion. No matter how bad the bad or evil the evil in ourselves and others, no one is beyond the love and compassion of the divine. Receiving love and compassion moves us toward being made whole.
What does it take to be made whole? Having embraced love and compassion for ourselves and own needs, part of being made whole leads us to show love and compassion toward those in need. Our community of faith provides us both the opportunity to experience God’s love and compassion and to offer it to those in need of it as well. Something that we embrace truly becomes ours when we, in turn, give it away. The journey towards being made whole begins with God’s love and compassion manifested in the life and ministry of Jesus. We welcome God’s love and grace at the point of our need. And finally, we become whole as we give to others that which we have embraced for ourselves.
Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel stated, “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.” God help us to be kind people.
I began the sermon with a story of two women in a church service in Houston. The older woman, with love, care and professional support return to good mental health. The younger woman, received much love and support, years of professional therapy, a large settlement in a law suit against the shopping mall. In the end, her path to peace involved her death by suicide.
Not all our challenges have miraculous endings and God loves us still. May we pray