If you are preaching on the readings for Epiphany, I will have a special post available Tuesday morning with those readings.
Today we are looking at the readings for the Second Sunday of Christmas, Year A (Sunday, January 5, 2020). The lectionary readings are Jeremiah 31:7-14; Ephesians 1:3-14; and John 1:10-18. This gospel reading from the first chapter of John’s gospel is very rich, and I can see at least three jumping off points for a discussion of mental illness.
First of all, there’s verse 16, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” This is a message of abundance, of overflowing love and grace and peace. Yet, to someone with depression, it is a difficult message to actually believe. Depression actually saps your energy, saps your ability to see joy or hope. There’s a reason why sad moods are called “the blues,” because they actually change our ability to see beauty. All around us, things lose their richness and hue, and everything becomes a bit more grey, a bit more blue. Someone currently in a depression is not just having a “blue day,” though. They are living with a disorder that prevents them from seeing anything else. They can’t just “feel better” or “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Verse 16 sounds nice, but to a depressive it’s out of reach.
And then there’s verse 17, “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” People with certain types of mental illness can get very caught on rules, very hung up on making sure things go a certain way. Let’s take OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, for one. First off, OCD is not what you have if it bothers you when your bathroom is dirty, or when one of your books or CD’s is shelved incorrectly. That’s being meticulous. OCD is a debilitating disease that means that you literally cannot function unless you follow certain rules, certain patterns. It’s more than discomfort; it’s feeling completely stuck and helpless unless you put your clothes on in a certain way, or check the locks on your door four times, and so forth. These are people who are obsessed and compelled by a kind of law; they live in the first half of the verse which says that the Law was given through Moses. They would love to believe in the hope that grace and truth come through Jesus, but it seems like such a pipe dream to them.
And then there’s verses 10-11, “The world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” Some severe forms of mental illness, much like dementia, cause the person to forget people, even their loved ones. I have often wondered what goes on in the mind of someone with dementia. Are they as confused as they present, or are they just unable to communicate well? It seems to me such a very tragic disease.
So, we have at least three reminders of various disorders in this passage. And so it brings up the question: can mentally ill people receive the good news? Can mentally ill people experience the joy and hope of salvation in their lives? The answer is of course a resounding yes; Paul tells us that in Romans 8 where he writes that nothing at all in the world will be able to separate us from God’s love through Jesus Christ. But a harder question here is, “how do we preach that word?” How do we proclaim God’s good news to people who are built in such a way that receiving it is so difficult?
One way is to be like John was, which is to say, repeat yourself a lot. One thing that a lot of people with mental illnesses have in common is a voice within that tells us things over and over again. The things the voices tell us are decidedly unhelpful. Voices within depressives say that we are horrible and useless. Voices within those with OCD tell them that the world is terribly dangerous unless they get it right. So many different voices, repeating and repeating. As preachers, we can be voices that challenge those other voices. But we need to also accept that we can’t change anyone, or fix anyone, with just a few words. We need to repeat them over and over and over again, and also trust that the Holy Spirit will use those words, bit by bit, like water eroding a mountain, to dig holes in the lies that our inner voices tell us. So on behalf of those (like myself) who have such a voice, I ask you please: be patient, and gently tell us over and over again how God’s grace falls upon us all. Over and over again how Jesus Christ brought something better than Moses’ law, how despite how many people did not accept Jesus, some did receive him. How people did hear his message. And maybe, eventually, years down the road, some flowers will bloom where you planted seeds.
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