Sermon: Recognized

A photo of a double rainbow

January 31, 2021

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Mark 1:21-28

by Eric Anderson

I’m not quite sure how it happened. One moment the honu was happily eating away at those underwater grasses, and the next moment he was choking. He rose to the surface as quickly as he could, trying to dislodge something hard that had somehow got into his windpipe instead of heading for his stomach. In his panic, water was heading down toward his lungs.

Honu aren’t fish. They breathe air. When they get water in their lungs, they drown.

Before he reached the surface, whatever it was in his throat came free and he was able to spit it out, but he was still swallowing more water than he should. His head broke above the water and he started to cough his throat clear. It took much longer than he liked – he was pretty miserable the whole time – but finally everything seemed all right. It had been terribly scary. His throat was sore, sore, sore, and his chest ached inside the armor of his shell. He made his way to a nearby beach to haul himself onto shore and rest.

After a nap, he felt much better, so he ventured back out to resume the interrupted meal. He was pretty hungry, after all. And that’s when he realized it.

That soreness in the chest – it kept him from holding his breath for as long as he should. The first time he realized it he nearly panicked again, shooting for the surface like a rock falling, except in the other direction. He rested, then he tested. Nope. He could hold his breath, and much longer than you or I could, but he couldn’t stay down and graze the way he’d always been able to. He kept pushing it and pushing it. His lungs ached. He couldn’t do it.

He went back to the beach and cried.

Another honu resting there asked him why he was so sad, and between teary gulps he told her the story.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know what else I can do,” he said, “except keep trying to stay down as long as I should. I can’t let this get to me.”

She thought about this. “I don’t know if this is one of those things that gets better with time,” she said, “but I do know this. Pretending that a problem doesn’t exist isn’t any way to make it better.”

“I’m not pretending it doesn’t exist,” he protested.

“Not exactly, but you’re acting as if you’re not hurt, as if you don’t need to recover from a hurt. You’re not giving your body a chance to heal. It might heal just fine if you don’t, but it’s likely that it needs some tenderness to get better.”

“Oh,” he said. “I guess I could eat in shallower water, and take short dives. Then rest ashore some more. Do you think that we help?”

“I think it could,” she said. “How about I keep you company while you do it?”

I can’t tell you for sure how things went with them, whether he recovered so that he could stay under as long as he had before, or even if the two new friends were best friends ever after, but I can tell you that facing how he was hurt did help him heal, and that having a friend alongside helped, too.

One of the things that strikes me about the encounters Jesus had with “unclean spirits” in the gospels is that they tended to recognize him for who he was – “the holy one of God” as this one says – while people did not. In fact, in verse 27, the people talk about Jesus’ teaching, Jesus’ authority, and Jesus’ power over unclean spirits, while leaving out the fact that the spirit had named Jesus as “the holy one of God.”

Puzzling. And enlightening as well, because it reflects the human ability to see what is not there, and not to see what is there. Yesterday I saw a rainbow here on campus. It was a double rainbow, in fact, and you should be able to see it now on the screen (see above or watch the video). It wasn’t until I looked at a picture of it – for about the third or fourth time – that I noticed that the rainbow passed in front of the trees, not behind. Yes, I was standing just a few feet from the end of the rainbow.

The end of the rainbow, we now know, is in Hilo, Hawai’i, but as you can see in the picture, the gold is apparently at the other end of the rainbow.

So let’s talk about something that may very well be in this text, and is certainly in the world, and something we are inclined not to see, or to think about, or to talk about. And that’s mental health and mental illness.

I do not know if the man with an unclean spirit had a mental illness, but I do know that people displaying such behavior tend to be diagnosed with mental illnesses in our day. When I’ve worked with people with severe mental illness, I have found some just as disconcertingly aware of those around them as this person was when he said, “I know who you are.” My guess is that being captive to an unclean spirit would induce mental illness if it hadn’t been there before. As Cheryl Lindsay observes at, “The unclean spirit exerts control over the human being–mind, body, and soul. That influence is at odds with a liberating God who came, in no small part, to set the captive free.”

Captivity – harm – to body, mind, and soul. For some, that’s exactly what a mental illness feels like.

Mental illness, however, does not always look like what Jesus encountered. Like physical illness, mental illness can be mild or severe. It can be brief in duration, or it can endure to become a chronic condition. Some mental illnesses get better without treatment. Some do not. Untreated mental illnesses, well, sometimes they progress just the same as treated. Other untreated mental illnesses deepen in suffering. Some mental illnesses, unaddressed, can lead to death.

Symptoms of a mental illness may or may not tell you how severe the condition is or what its course may be. Sadness, for example, is a familiar feeling to most people. It may pass, or it may persist. It may get very sharp for a short time, or it may linger as an ache that doesn’t go away. Either of those conditions may indicate a mental illness that can benefit from treatment. Persistence of a feeling is a good indicator that treatment might help.

Even a brief mental illness can be debilitating, however. Compare it, if you will, to the common cold. A cold doesn’t last long: two or three days, right? But how do you get anything done in that time? Something like a short span of severe depression can be just as debilitating. And it makes no more sense to work through depression than it does through a cold.

In 2019 the UCC General Synod voted to designate the UCC Mental Health Network as an Historically Underrepresented Group in the denomination. As it happened, I wrote the story for United Church News on the measure, and this is what I wrote: “Delegates brought their own stories to the floor: stories of veterans suffering PTSD, Members in Discernment wondering if Committees on Ministry would reject them for their conditions, wondering if a history of suicidal thoughts would bar them from participation in Church at all.”

One delegate sought to address rumored concerns that this motion might allow people with mental illnesses to become delegates. “I just want people to know,” she said, “that we already are. There are many people on this floor that experience mental illness in their homes and families.” That delegate, by the way, was someone whose voice you’ve heard before. Her name is Rebekah Anderson.

Mental illness is in us, and around us, and among us. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness each year, and 1 in 20 experience severe forms. 1 in 6 young people between 6 and 17 years of age endure a mental health illness each year.

By the way, that includes your pastor. I’ve sought treatment in the past for stress, depression, and help managing my emotions. Can I assure you that treatment helped? Well, no. On the other hand, I can’t tell you from my own experience that the pain reliever I took had anything to do with my headache fading away. I felt bad. I got help. I got better. It meant something.

Since the pandemic arrived, mental health concerns have increased dramatically, with people seeking help for anxiety and depression. Mental Health America reports a 93% increase in people taking their anxiety screen from 2019 to 2020 – and that only covered the first three quarters of the year. That is no surprise. One of the foundations of good mental health is healthy social connection – family, friends, community – and separation has been the order of the day.

We even use the phrase “social distancing.” I mean, it’s physical distance that makes the difference in spreading COVID – but the distance makes such a difference to us that it really is a social distance as well.

D. Mark Davis writes in his blog, Left Behind and Loving It, “If we merely saw the unclean spirit as a different entity than the man, we would be ignoring the genuine tragedy of his life, the degree to which this unclean spirit has damaged his psyche, his body, his relationships, his ability to be productive or loving or happy. If we merely saw the sameness, we would be reducing his humanity to his situation.”

That might be the worst of our tendency to see what is not there, and not to see what is. People with mental illnesses are… well, choose the word. There are so many. We see the behavior rooted in the illness and mistake it for the person. We do not see the person with the illness.

That is your word today: See the reality of mental illness before you. See it within you. Seek the help that can improve the situation. Seek the help that nourishes yourself. But also see the human being. See the person whose life is not what they want it to be. See the ways you can make it easier. See the ways that you can remove the barriers that make it harder.

We serve, after all, a liberating God.


Watch the Recorded Sermon

The video above includes the entire service of January 31, 2021. Clicking “Play” will jump to the beginning of the sermon.

The nature of things is that they change. You’ll find that amply illustrated in the changes made in preaching the prepared text.

Photo of a double rainbow (and the rainbow’s end) by Eric Anderson.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on January 31, 2021

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