Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 31, 2021 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Deuteronomy 18:15-20+Psalm 111+1 Corinthians 8:1-13+Mark 1:21-28

Imagine that you are sitting in church – yes, that’s a stretch these days – and I have just finished reading the gospel. As I move to return the gospel book, somebody  we’ve never seen before stands up and starts talking about what I have just read. Before I have a chance to interrupt, it is clear that what this person is saying makes sense. In fact, it is so clear and so compelling that even I sit down to listen.

And just as this stranger finishes teaching, one of our Hoboken neighbors that we usually see muttering to himself or shouting to whomever will listen as she walks down the middle of the street, enters our doors and starts shouting at the speaker. “Who do you think you are? You can’t hurt me. I know who you are.” And our speaker says, “Quiet!” And the person stops ranting, instantly calms down, and looks around, a little embarrassed and unsure about what has just happened.

This is the scene in the Capernaum synagogue. No one knew Jesus. Simon Peter lived there, at least according to Luke. Tradition has it that a Byzantine church was built on top of Peter’s house, but Jesus? He was a stranger. Unlike if someone waltzed in here and starting preaching, it was not unusual in Jesus’ day for people in the congregation, those learned in  scripture, to comment on the Torah or haftarah – the reading from the law or the prophets. When the boy Jesus is in the temple, separated from his family who were already on their way home from the festival in Jerusalem, he is talking about the readings with the temple elders. In Luke, when Jesus returns from the 40 days in the wilderness, he walks into the synagogue and sits down to teach from the Isaiah scroll. This would not have been nearly so shocking as it would be today if someone did that. And maybe these folks remembered the words we heard this morning from Deuteronomy: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet” (18:15).

I can’t say how common it was for someone with an unclean spirit to speak up. In 1st century Palestine, an unclean spirit or a demon was usually what we would call mental illness, although epilepsy also fell under the category of demon possession. In Mark’s gospel, the demons are the ones who know who Jesus is. It takes the disciples forever to catch on, but right here in the beginning, these dudes know who Jesus is. All of which leads me to believe that there is something real about these demonic possessions that is beyond our ability to fully grasp. To deny the presence of evil – however one names it – is a dangerous thing.

There are seven miracles related to demon-possession in the gospels, not counting the seven that were supposed to have been cast out of Mary Magdalene. It’s important to remember that Jesus healed the sick and suffering, no matter the cause of that. In Jewish culture, sickness could be seen as a result of sinfulness. Depending on what it was, it could have brought on ritual impurity, meaning that the person was set apart from the community until he could go through a rite of purification. And since we know that Jesus is all about relationship, healing people so that they can be restored to community is exactly what he would do.

If someone walked off the street here and started shouting, I hope that we would deal with that with compassion and care. We have had our share of street folk come in to enjoy our hospitality, and that’s a good thing. I hope they feel that they are welcome here.

The kind of mental illness that concerns me even more, however, is the kind that is not so easy to see from the outside. Over the past eleven months, there has been a sharp increase in the number of people dealing with anxiety and depression. Yes, it may be situational and not chronic, brought on by the pandemic and the isolation and uncertainty that goes with it, but it is real all the same, and the effects are likely to be long-lasting. Our tendency is to hide it. To stuff it down. To act as if we’re fine, everything is fine, when everything really isn’t fine.

Mental illness often feels to me like the final frontier. If I have heart disease, I’m going to go to my doctor and get treated. If I have diabetes, I do the same. If my tooth hurts, I go to the dentist. If I break a leg, I go to the orthopedist. And not only that, I ask my family and friends for help or support if I need it to deal with these issues.

But if we are depressed or anxious or have an eating disorder? We don’t want anyone to know about it, and the number of us who actually seek treatment is a fraction of what it might be. According to the latest statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness

  • 20.6% of U.S. adults experienced mental illness in 2019 (51.5 million people). This represents 1 in 5 adults.
  • 5.2% of U.S. adults experienced serious mental illness in 2019 (13.1 million people). This represents 1 in 20 adults.
  • 16.5% of U.S. youth aged 6-17 experienced a mental health disorder in 2016 (7.7 million people)
  • 3.8% of U.S. adults experienced a co-occurring substance use disorder and mental illness in 2019 (9.5 million people)
  • Depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1-trillion in lost productivity each year.
  • Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.

And these stats don’t even include the past eleven months!

But no, we can handle it. We can manage it. We’ll white knuckle it, thinking that it isn’t affecting our family or our friends or our work. But it is. Just ask anyone living with someone with untreated mental illness.

I am focusing on this man with an unclean spirit this morning because I am encountering an awful lot of people struggling with an unclean spirit these days. If that is you, I’m happy to talk with you, but be prepared – I’ll be referring you to a professional. I believe that every single person should have a primary care doctor, a dentist, and a therapist as a matter of course.

One of the reasons I am so open about my own son’s depression and death is to try to normalize conversation around mental health. When I was being screened for my knee replacement, one of the physicians went down a whole list of depression and anxiety screening questions, and when she was done, I thanked her. Someone has to ask, “are you okay?”

Jesus knew this person with the unclean spirit was not okay, and he healed him. In our day, part of being healed is to know that you are part of a community that loves you, that will support you as you struggle, will care for you when you are sick, and will walk the road to recovery with you.

How did those people know that Jesus spoke with authority? We don’t really know. I like to imagine that he made the word of God relevant to those listening in a way that resonated with what they understood of God.

How do we speak with authority as followers of Jesus? By demonstrating love for our neighbor, caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, providing refuge for the lost. Our authority as a community of faith is similarly how authentic we are with one another, encouraging vulnerability and honesty, and encouraging each other when we have lost our way. If we can be a place where those dealing with anxiety, depression, or any other kind of mental illness can feel loved and supported without judgment, I’d say that we are living the gospel…with authority.

ASEPSermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 31, 2021 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas