by Rev. Joan Kessler
This is a hard passage to hear. I know you are thinking what possible relevance could a story about demons and unclean spirits have to do with my life today. They are not part of our vernacular and exorcisms… well… they are pretty much reserved for Netflix. Yet as I thought about this passage from the beginning of Mark’s gospel there were aspects that spoke to our current. Today we hear Mark’s version of how Jesus public ministry begins… it doesn’t start off with a lengthy sermon on a hillside, or turning water into wine. It starts with a confrontation at the synagogue.
Jesus and his new band of friends find themselves in Capernaum. It’s the Sabbath and they attend the service at the local synagogue. Upon their arrival, Jesus is confronted with a man who is clearly suffering with a mental illness.
Jesus’ encounter with this man reminds us of the precious gift of good mental health. And we know perhaps firsthand the challenges of maintaining this. The arrival of the pandemic a year ago has brought to light an alarming trend of declining mental health. And while all of us are adapting and figuring out ways to spell off the winter blues and isolation, it is been an especially difficult experience for our youth. As we move through this second wave and perhaps brace ourselves for a larger third wave yet to come, we do what we can to limit our social movements and interactions to help minimize the spread of the disease. This cooperation comes with a cost. But for young people, the very things that are “essential services” to their development and growth are not available to them. Being with friends, moving from home to attend university, graduation and convocation ceremonies… all things that are rites of passage to our youth are put off and sometimes forgotten. Just this past Thursday was Bell’s Let’s Talk, a day set aside to foster the conversation and sharing around mental health issues. We all can play a role in keeping connected and asking how those in your social circle and bubble are managing during this time of winter isolation. And we can help find help when it is needed. Mental illness can rob individuals and their families of so much freedom. While we will make up our own minds about Jesus’ actions at the synagogue, his intention was to validate, to notice and help bring restoration to this man and his suffering.
This narrative also revolves around the question of authority. The man at the synagogue already seems to know something about Jesus and identifies him as coming from Nazareth and he challenges him, he eggs him on… What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Go ahead… do something. We wonder was Jesus prepared for this altercation? He was seemingly calm and collected. He acknowledges the man as the man acknowledged Jesus. And in this mutuality came an act of healing that may seem incredulous… but this is where restoration and a return to wholeness begins. Jesus’ power was not wielded with any type of force or restraint. He didn’t say to his friends, ok, watch this boys, this is how you work miracles. Jesus stayed on the ground, he entered into the conversation, and saw the gift of the human being before him.
Power and authority are massive concepts in our world today. We conceptualize power as a force to hold over another… the ability to coerce, manipulate, and even humiliate. Authority is different. It is the ability to direct, to exercise leadership and is given by another. Dictators wage wars when power is deemed to be slipping away and bring suffering to the very people they are supposed to be serving. We hold fast to democratic processes, of elections where every vote counts and the people determine the course of a nation’s leadership. In the past year with the arrival of COVID, there has been a noticeable shifting of authority… from mainstream network news to underground alt news… from the political realm to that of medical science… I can’t say I had given much thought to the presence of epidemiologists, immunologists or infectious disease specialists until this past year. But these are the people we have vested authority in, to give us the information we need to help keep us safe and in good health.
The question before us this morning is “What is this teaching, this new authority?” Jesus doesn’t laud his presence over others; he doesn’t pretend to be something he isn’t; Jesus is authentic in his being and knows what he is able to do. He also shares his power with others, he doesn’t say I am the only one who knows how to talk to a street person, you can do this too and handles confrontation with care and concern for the other he is attending.
Making decisions, assuming authority and balancing power can be heavy undertakings, and no more so than in these COVID times. So many things are simply not knowable. Sometimes, consistency is the order of the day until we know more… and other times, decisions cannot be put off because of the virus… this way we live now …could be the way we live for some time yet to come. But we keep going forward and making decisions in the meantime, whether it be in our parenting and facing those challenges around screen time and instilling values that are important… in our intimate relationships around concerns like our health or finances…in our communities of faith that we are being authentic and recognizing our gifts and our limitations and doing what we do well to the best of our abilities… but the Gospel reminds us that this is not always the case. Jesus did not always get a stamp of approval as we know how his journey ends. That’s why we keep telling the story, to challenge our understanding and thinking and to continue the conversation…
Amen and Amen
What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, more unashamed conversation about illnesses that affect, not only individuals, but their families as well. ~ Glen Close