My church, Duke Memorial UMC is preaching a series on “things we don’t talk about in church.” We started off with the topic of mental illness. We had a resource guide printed in the bulletin, and at the end of the service we offered space for our congregation to process and pray with our Stephen Ministers and retired clergy.
Most of you are sitting next to two people today, one on your right and one on your left. Here is a statistic about mental illness. If you or someone in your family does not struggle with their mental health then it is likely the person sitting to your right does.
Because 50% of North Americans will have a mental illness over the course of their lifetime, or will have a family member who does. That means that mental illness will touch, in one way or another, half of this congregation. It’s every other person who passes you walking on the street. It’s a part of the lives of every other co-worker, every other friend at school, every other parent on your kid’s soccer team.
Today’s reading is a story about a man who self-harms, a characteristic of some severe forms of mental illness. In the Bible we don’t have a clear picture of these diseases. There wasn’t a category for mental illness in the time of Jesus. But many of the symptoms associated with mental illness come out in stories about demon possession. These ancient writers, prior to modern psychology, believed external spiritual forces were at work in people. Now we may give different names or diagnoses for what we see in these stories.
The man gives us a window into the experiences and stigmas surrounding mental illness. He experiences the vulnerability of his body and mind, and of his social world. Like many people who struggle with mental illness he finds himself cut off from community, isolated and sent away. In Jesus’ day that was the way that the community dealt with mental illness – by pushing it the outskirts, as far as they could put it out of their minds and communities and their lives.
This story also gives us insight into the stigmas around mental illness in our culture. The man is portrayed as more animal than human, possessed by a demon, violent and unable to be restrained. So many of these images still attach to mental illness. These stigmas around mental illness are rampant, and many of them are portrayed in this story. Some of us may have been taught that mental illness is chronic, impacting a person’s whole life. Yet 90% of mental health issues are treatable and manageable, especially with early intervention and support.
Like the man in today’s Gospel reading, we also have a tendency to associate mental illness with violence. Most people who struggle with mental illness do not exhibit severe signs like the ones we heard about in today’s reading. But that’s not what we often hear on the radio or sees on the news. It seems like every time there’s unexplained and horrific violence in our community the very next news commentary is on the mental illness of the perpetrator. In reality less than 1% of persons with psychosis ever become violent – less than 1%.
Men in our culture face their own stigmas around mental illness. On average men suffer more incidents of mental illness than women. Yet young men and boys are often taught to put on a brave face, to suck it up, to keep their feelings to themselves. We persist in a culture of masculinity that glorifies individualism, lack of emotion, and independence. Asking for help becomes a sign of being inept or weak.
In our contemporary world we want to pretend mental illness isn’t happening, or at least not here. We’re supposed to have it all together, to be able to manage our lives. And when you can’t it feels like you’re the only one. Why can’t I hold it together? Why is it that everyone else can keep doing life and I can’t?
We don’t send people out to the tombs any more. We get rid of mental illness in a different way. We try to pretend it doesn’t exist.
It doesn’t have to be like this. We can do better for one another, for our church, for those who come here looking for a community to receive their whole selves, to be a church that welcomes whole selves. We can be a people who see the seamlessness between our bodies, our minds, and our souls. Together we as the church can challenge and change the stigma’s attached to mental illness.
I used to work at a church in northeast Philly. On the first Sunday of each month, right in the middle of our worship service we’d have celebrations, times when we’d invite people to come up to the front and share what was happening in their lives – a birthday, an anniversary, or a graduation.
Every month Paul brought someone to church who was celebrating his sobriety. Paul was the church advocate for Alcoholics Anonymous. AA was his other church, and he brought me to a few open meetings to meet his friends who were in recovery. Paul was amazing at bringing people to church, people who were newly sober, some relapsing, others grinding through their second month off the bottle.
Each month Paul would cheer someone on to the celebration. A couple guys would stand there with their chips in their hands – these round markers that celebrated how long they had been sober. 1 week. 30 days. 10 years. They would hold up these chips like they were Olympic medals, earned with blood, sweat, and a lot of meetings.
One day a couple came up for celebration. They were a lovely family in our church, with these two sweet little kids. They are professionals in our community. They taught Sunday school and helped with the canned food drive.
On that Sunday they shared the anniversary of their sobriety. They shared about how their lives had been changed, how God had met them, how they wanted to share the good news, but how they always knew not drinking would always be a struggle.
I was amazed. They could have fooled me. I could have spent the rest of my time in that church without ever knowing that this family struggled with addiction. Drug abuse and drug dependence are types of mental illness. Addiction changes the brain, disturbing a person’s normal hierarchies. They could have kept their struggles with mental health hidden, but they didn’t. They let us celebrate them. They trusted us, trusted that we wouldn’t see their addiction as weakness or ineptitude, but as an illness, an illness that required patience, care, and understanding.
The culture of celebrating sobrieties in church changed the way I thought about mental illness. As I came to see how common addiction was in our community it started to normalize as another illness, another space where we could share life. That opened doors for us to notice others with mental illness. We organized meals and childcare for a woman in our church struggling through a debilitating depression. People would give thanks for new meds for bipolar in the same way they share thanksgiving for the birth of a niece or nephew.
I came to realize something. It isn’t mental illness that we don’t like to talk about in church. What we really don’t want to talk about is how hard it is to be broken, to have a brokenness that no one can see, an illness that’s on the inside, one that doesn’t show up like a cough or a cold. We don’t like to expose the illness of our brain because we’re afraid of the isolation, afraid of being sent away from friendship, from trust, from love.
We want to be trusted instead of being shut out. We want to be fragile without reactions of discomfort and fear. We want to be received the way Jesus received the man in today’s story, as someone’s beloved, someone’s child, someone who has a future and a hope.
If we look at the story through this lens then we can hear Mark telling us about two conflicting communities. The demon that enters the man says his name is Legion – because he is many, a community in himself – this one sustained by isolation and terror. But there is another community in this story – a village of family and friends, a place that offers respite and relief.
The brother of a man named Robert, who struggles with severe mental illness, described an ideal imaginary community that would compete with that of Legion. In it people call Robert by name. They talk to him about ordinary things, and don’t give undue attention to his agitation. They gently guide him through difficult days.
Donald Capps writes that these persons have their own vocation. These who seems strange to us help us to see the stranger inside each of us, often unacknowledged and unrecognized. This recognition of our own self-alienation is “the first step on the difficult journey to making peace with ourselves.” These persons may help us to see our own longing for community, of our own need for healing.
If you do struggle with a mental illness, if you love someone who suffers from an eating disorder, or anxiety, or schizophrenia, then the ending to today’s Gospel lesson may be hard to hear. Jesus heals the man, instantly. He says the word and this illness is gone, off into a bunch of pigs. The man is restored to his former self and then he returns to his community. In this story everything changes in a flash.
That’s not how most people are healed of mental illness. For most of us returning to wholeness is a long road. On that road is prayer and trust, but along the way we meet other healers – psychologists and counselors, sometimes medication or hospitalization. For a few of us mental illness will be chronic, it will require love and commitment without the expectation of ever getting back to where you used to be. For all of us healing involves a whole world of healers, a lot of people who are willing to say, “I am with you, now until this is over, and I will never leave you.”
When I hear these stories of healing in the Bible I’m reminded that Jesus tells us they are signs. They are sign of the kingdom of heaven breaking in, signs of God coming into our world. You are those signs, too. Doctors and licensed clinical social workers are those signs. The neighbor who babysits for free so you can go to therapy, the small group that brings you dinner when you just can’t get out of bed – those are all signs of God’s in-breaking kingdom. We also know that this too is healing because through these signs Jesus’ does for us what he does in Scripture. Jesus is in the work of reuniting, of restoring community. Jesus is here to return us to one another.
Holly Toensing, “Living among the Tombs” in This Abled Bodied (eds: Hector Avalos, Sarah J Melcher, and Jeremy Schipper. Society of Biblical Literature, 1997), 143.
 Donald Capps quoted in “Living among the Tombs,” 143.