Reaching for the cloak | 28 June 2015 | Mental health focus

Text: Mark 5:21-43

There’s a quote, sometimes attributed to Plato and other times attributed to Philo of Alexandria, which goes like this: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Sometimes I wonder, when sayings like this are assigned to multiple big names of history, if it’s more likely it was first spoken between two farmers out in some remote field, who repeated it to their neighbors and on down the road it went – people thinking it so profound that it must have been said by the greatest philosopher of the Western world.

A bit of web research indicated that the oldest known appearance of these words in print was in the 1897 Christmas edition of The British Weekly. 

No matter its origin, it’s a line I came across a number of years back and have taken to heart as a pastor and as a human being.  Mostly because the second part has proven itself to be true over and over again.  As far as I can tell, even people who most appear to have their stuff together are, in some aspect life, fighting a great battle.  Whether the first part, Be kind, is something I and we actually do well is another challenge in itself.

We are a congregation that mostly has our stuff together.  We are made up of persons serving the community in all kinds of vital ways, we own and worship in a pleasant building in a desirable neighborhood, we are fiscally sound, and mission oriented.  Yet, I don’t think it’s presumptuous to say that we all, in our own way, are fighting a great battle.

And one of these great battles is the struggle for mental wellness, whether it be personally or someone we live with.  Some of you have been more public with your struggles, others more private.  As someone raised in a family not dominated by mental illness, learning about this reality has been a significant part of my adult life.  The first major wake up call came when one of my closest friends from college died by suicide in his mid 20’s after several years of veering between mania and depression.  Another close friend, from seminary, who had lived with depression and an alcohol addiction, also intentionally ended his own life, soon after we both had graduated from AMBS.  As a pastor I have been made aware of just how prevalent a struggle is people’s mental health – to the point of stepping back several times and blurting the question – What is going on in this world?

NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.7 million – experiences mental illness in a given year.  Approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13–18 have experienced a severe mental disorder at some point in their life.

I consider myself very much in learning mode about all this, including how to even talk about it.  Sometimes images can help give expression to things when we don’t yet have the words.

One of the common languages we have is the language of scripture: The stories, the characters, the images of life we encounter there.  Today’s gospel reading is not specifically about mental illness, but provides multiple inroads into the conversation.  It’s a passage that contains two different stories, told in such a way that we are invited to make connections between them.  One is about a little girl who is on the brink of death.  Her father, Jairus, a leader of the synagogue and the only character outside of Jesus and his disciples given a name, begs for Jesus to come and heal the girl.  Jesus agrees to go – and on the way, surrounded by a large crowd, is touched by a woman, herself desperate for healing.  Despite the demands of the crowd, the protest of the disciples, and the urgency of Jairus’ daughter’s situation, Jesus stops and talks and listens with the woman, telling her that her faith has made her well, and to go in peace.  Jesus then arrives at Jairus’ home, clears out the crowd, and goes in to the child’s bedside, taking her by the hand and helping her stand, revived.

These two stories are organized like a sandwich, a common style of Mark, with Jairus and his daughter providing the top and bottom layer, the encounter with the hemorrhaging woman sandwiched in between.  Mark also uses other signals to weave these stories together.  The crowds are prevalent in both and fade silently into the background as woman and girl are encountered by Jesus in their individuality.  The woman has been bleeding for 12 years, the entire lifetime of the girl who is twelve years old.  They are both referred to as “daughter.”  Jairus says, “My little daughter is at the point of death.”  Jesus says to the grown woman, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”  Even the fact that they are both females stands out as a connecting point in a narrative dominated by males.  A bleeding person and a corpse, which people believed the girl to be, were both considered ritually unclean in the Torah, yet Jesus is willing to touch and be touched by the “unclean,” and offers healing in doing so.

These two stories are really a part of one larger story, and invite us to consider how our personal stories are sandwiched between and intersected with other stories, each other’s stories, which are a part of one greater story that is in the process of being woven together, separate scraps brought together to form something meaningful.

A month ago I got together with several households from the congregation walking through very live struggles with mental illness.  We used the first part of the time to look at this passage, reading it through three different times out loud, speaking about where each person saw themselves in the story.  Reactions ranged from expressing how insightful and helpful this story is, to frustration and anger about why this story where everything seems to turn out A-OK for everyone would be used to talk about the ongoing and no-end-in-sight presence of mental illness.  Lines like “your faith has made you well” were received both as a source of great comfort, and salt in the wound that is not well.

Like that group that evening, I invite you to bring your whole self to this passage, and to see where it meets you.  I wonder if there is a certain character, or a certain phrase, which helps you tell your story.  The passage is printed in the bulletins and I’d like to walk through it in a little more detail with a focus on the main characters.

Jairus is a person not suffering from an illness himself, but deeply affected by the illness of someone he loves.  His life is woven together with someone who is suffering, even near death, and he is compelled to do whatever he can do to help her.  He is an advocate.  He is an activist.  He is a parent, a father.  He is a person of privilege, a community leader with connections, a leader of the synagogue, and he uses his status as an asset to break out of the crowd and grab the attention of someone who may be able to help him.  In an act of humility and desperation, he falls down at Jesus’ feet and begs him.  Not just begs him.  Begs him repeatedly, Mark says.  Begs, and begs, and begs, and begs, and begs, repeatedly.   “My daughter is at the point of death.  My daughter.   My daughter is at the point of death.  Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.  Come.  Come, you must see if you can heal her.

How many times did Jairus the synagogue leader have to beg before Jesus went with him?  Jairus is an advocate.  He’s a parent, a persistent father, and he wants what’s best for his child.

I see our work with the BREAD organization as being in the spirit of Jairus.  For the last two years we’ve been petitioning and urging and even begging the mental health board of Franklin County to implement a clubhouse model that looks beyond individual crisis care for mental health needs and establishes a center for friendship, education, advocacy, and employment, along with access to ongoing medical care.   The most recent update is that they are willing to draw up a plan for this if they can pass a levy in the fall.

Jairus is not ill himself, but his life is woven together with someone who is.  He is the one who kickstarts this whole sequence of events and without his voice one wonders if any of what follows would have come to pass.

And then there is this woman.  The way Mark introduces her, even in his brief, pithy language, each phrase reveals more of the depth of her struggle.  Verse 25.  Now there was woman…who had been suffering from hemorrhages…for twelve years….She had endured much…under many physicians…and had spent all that she had…and she was no better…but rather grew worse.”  We can almost imagine this woman going from doctor to doctor, traveling far, taking advice from neighbor and stranger about who to try next, hoping each time that this one might have the solution, each time being disappointed, each time shelling out some of her dwindling money supply until it was gone and her problem persisted.  Doing this for twelve years.  Doctors of the ancient world were not always the kindest or most competent of people and were often criticized.  But what else are you going to do?  Where else are you going to go?

Ritually unclean for twelve years, growing accustomed to not being touched – she hears about another possibility for healing and lets herself get her hopes up enough to at least blend in anonymously with the crowd, strategically working her way closer to this healer who seems to be on his way somewhere important.  She has no intention of making herself known.  She has no wish to become the public face of a miraculous healing.  She was advocating for no one but herself.  She wanted to be made well.  Mark even gives us a window into her thoughts: “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”  This is either great faith, or desperate magical thinking.

What happens is both wonderful and terrifying.  She is made well, but she is stopped from retreating back into the crowd.  Jesus outs hers in front of everyone and she comes in fear and trembling and, like Jairus, falls before him, and, in the words of Mark, “told him the whole truth.”  I wonder what her “whole truth” was and why Mark felt the need to include that phrase.  Whatever it was, she tells her whole story to Jesus.  And Jesus calls her “Daughter,” and assures her that she has great faith, and sends her on her way with a blessing of peace.  I wonder if the hemorrhaging ever came back, and if it did, if she was able to have a different kind of relationship with it in light of her encounter with that wandering rabbi who did not reject her touch, and told her that her faith makes her well.

The young girl is in such a state that she can’t advocate for others, or even herself.  She is incapacitated and, as the story progresses, declared to be dead.  She is at the point of needing others to do for her what she is unable to do for herself.  Different cultures professionalize different aspects of the dying process, and as was the custom in this case, professional mourners would have been hired, giving voice to the despair of the family.  Jesus approaches this “commotion” as Mark calls it, and puts them all outside.  The commotion is unhelpful.  Not even the 12 disciples can be in the house.  Only Jesus, his inner circle of three disciples, the parents, and girl.  It’s an intimate setting that only a few witness.  The woman had extended   her hand to touch Jesus, and now it’s Jesus who extends his hand to this girl, and beckons her, “Little girl, get up.”  The word used for “get up” is one of the words that Christians would later use to refer to resurrection.  This girl experiences a resurrection, and celebrates by doing what living people do, she gets something to eat.

And Jesus doesn’t ask them to become the poster family for healing and resurrection.  He tells them that nobody has to know about this, at least not now.  This experience was for them.  It was a gift, and they can hold it as closely to their hearts as they need to.  It seems strange for Jesus to give this order, especially since he’s in the business of spreading a world-altering message to anyone who would listen – but how very kind of him, to give this family permission to keep this private for this time and simply enjoy what they’d been given The fact that we’re talking about it right now means that somebody went public  with it at some point.

Jairus, the woman, and the girl give us different facets of this story that we’re all living in.

And sometimes we find ourselves just a part of the crowd, mostly oblivious to what’s really going on.  Standing on our tip toes to see if we can catch a glimpse, or wondering if we should be doing something more to help, or just accepting that sometimes the best thing we can do is get out of the way and do no harm.

And then there’s Jesus, who, depending on what you bring to the story, comes off as being perhaps the most comforting, or perhaps the most frustrating character of all.  He allows himself to be inconvenienced, he ignores customs and stigmas, he allows himself to be touched, and he reaches out with a touch.  He is a successful healer, a problem solver, it all looks so…simple.  Maybe too simple.

Christ can now be the community of faith, that holds us up in prayer – that circle at the bottom of the board that welcomes us out of isolation, into relationship.  But we also know that community can and will fail us at times.  Christ can be the face of any person who decides that they will be kind, because everyone they meet is fighting a great battle.  But this is unpredictable.

We want to have faith, that beyond our struggles we are held up in the Divine arms whose embrace no part of reality can escape.  We want to have faith that seemingly random scraps of existence can be gathered and pieced together into something meaningful and beautiful, even if we can’t see the whole picture.  We want to be made well.