29th Sunday in Ordinary Time A – Mental Health Awareness Week

Let me begin with a piece of advice.  If someone wants to ask you a question and they begin with something like, “We know you are wise and you never tell a lie and you don’t care how popular you are or whom you offend,” run the other way.  It is clearly a set-up.

That is what the Pharisees and Herodians do to Jesus.  He obviously knows it is a set-up and a pretty good one at that.  They ask, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” If he says no, he will be in trouble with the Roman authorities, if yes he will be encouraging cooperation with the hated Romans.  Yet, Jesus disarms them immediately with his own question.  He has them produce the coin that pays the tax and asks, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”  Of course it is Caesar.  But by this stage of history, Caesar is not just a political leader; he is worshipped as a god.   These pious Jews just admitted they were carrying an image of a false God.  How is that for dirty money? He then, famously, goes on to say, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”  Some have seen this an endorsement of a solely secular realm and a religious one.  Some see in this a Separation of Church and State but those ideas would not occur for centuries late.  Instead, I ask myself the question, “What did you think Jesus thought really belonged to Caesar?  And more importantly, what do you thing Jesus thought belonged to God?  Everyone and everything!

I am so proud that we are celebrating our first Mental Health Awareness week in our diocese.  It is of course, part of respect life month, in which we announce our belief that as God loves all, every person is bestowed with a dignity of life always and everywhere.  Those who struggle with mental illness belong to God.  From that we know three things.  If they belong to God, then they belong here.  And as members of the Body of Christ, we have a responsibility to identify and meet their needs.  And then one more thing I will talk about later.

As a people of God, we need all the faces of God represented to be truly whole.  That means that each person with a mental illness in any way should be accepted and welcomed in our parish.  Long ago you passed the baby test.  You know what the baby test is?  When a baby cries either everybody turns and scowls at the baby or everyone smiles.  I am proud to say that this a smiling, baby loving parish.  I am prouder to say in my ten years here, no one who struggles with mental issues of their family have once said that they were made to feel unwelcomed or unwanted.  Indeed, many times they have told me how warmly they have been made to feel and how blessed they feel to be here.  It is only as it should be, but sadly not always as it is.

And if you struggle with mental challenges and you feel uncomfortable or that you don’t belong, please tell me and we will fix it.  For you and for all if us, we want this place not to be just a church for all, but a home.

Secondly, we must meet the needs of the mental health community.  Jesus accomplished all that he did through relationships.  He did not just zap the nearest leper and healed them. He talked to them.  It might sound odd that when the blind man approached him, Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?”  We all assume that it would be that his blindness be cured, but what if they needed forgiveness even more?  In the same ways, we must have ears to hear. We must not presume we are doing well, we must proactively ask if we are meeting the needs of the mentally ill.

And if we are not, please tell us.  Let us know what brings you life?  How can we better serve you?  What is missing in our parish?  What insights do you have of which can better frame our mission? Your voice is both needed and valued.

But we know that there is something else true of those who belong to God that goes beyond merely welcoming and ensuring that they are at home and heard.  As God’s creature, those with mental illness challenges are the desired of God.  They are beautiful and important.  And they have something to teach us.  Jesus knew that. It seems to me he planted the seeds of the Gospel among the outsiders, especially the mentally ill.  “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  Biblical scholars believe that many of those from whom Jesus expelled demons suffered from mental illness; a feeling that many who struggle with mental illness can relate to.  He was always with those who had been dislocated from their communities, living in lonely anguish. Why did Jesus choose to bathe them into the light of the kingdom?  Because he sensed their nearness to God.  Because he could expose the divine light that shows so brightly among the poor, however their poverty is defined.  God has a marvelous way of giving each of us perfections and of perfecting our imperfections.

That describes my encounters with those who have mental illness.  They have made me a better priest, a better Christian and a better man.  We all know someone with depression.  They often have a world-soul.  They feel the pain of everyone with an empathy I cannot begin to approach.  For four years I worked with those with mental disabilities in Washington during seminary.  Their gift was to teach me that we do not say “I love you” too often and to too many, but not often and enough and to too few.  I have worked with those who suffer from compulsive disorders who struggle every day to be their best before God with a zeal I cannot imagine. Those with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder fight it with a strength I can only marvel at.

This weekend, coincidentally, there is a conference for people with disabilities at the Vatican.  I think they heard about our Mental Health Awareness Week and decided to jump on our bandwagon.  On Saturday, a woman named Bridget Brown handed the Pope a letter saying she is likely among the last generation of people living with Down’s syndrome, a chromosomal abnormality that causes intellectual disabilities among other things.  In Europe due to pre-natal screening, countries have upward of 90% abortion rates among those who have Down’s and Iceland is said to have “eradicated” it. I think of what my mentor at the group home Dee lamented as this trend began in the nineties, “Our friends are the prophets among us.”  What happens to a people when they no longer have their prophets? To whom do they listen?

So if you struggle with the darkness of depression and still seek the light of Christ; if you fight to make it here despite anxiety; if you know the burden of any mental illness and still turn to Christ lift it, I have but two words for you:  thank you.