First things first: this week, just in the Valley communities, three young men died by suicide. So today, related to our Scripture reading, I’m going to talk quite a bit about mental health and our response to things like mental illness and how we, as people of faith, can help. This is a hard topic for me personally, and I know it hits close to home for many of you, too. So I’ll offer the same warnings I have previously: if at any point, you need to take a walk, get some water, whatever—do what you need to do to care well for yourself. And if you’d like to talk more, or if you’d like someone to pray with, I’ll be available in my office after worship.
That said, we’re back in the gospel of Mark this morning, picking up precisely where we left off last week. There is a lot going on in this passage, and sadly we can’t get to all of it today—but there is plenty here for us to chew on.
Scripture: Mark 1:29-39
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
In the space of ten verses, we have three separate stories packed right up against one another—and together, they help us establish a rhythm of preaching, signs and wonders, and rest that will characterize Jesus’ ministry throughout the gospel of Mark. These stories also weave together a couple of points that Mark is trying to drive home for us:
The first is this: that the God of the universe, who holds the entirety of the cosmos, also cares deeply for each individual person within it.
We see this first in the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. Peter and Andrew let him know about her condition, and he doesn’t hesitate. He walks over to her, takes her by the hand, and lifts her up—and she is immediately and completely well. And immediately, she busies herself welcoming not only Jesus and the disciples, but later, opening her home to what Mark says is the entire town. She makes room for others to be healed, just as she was.
This flies in the face of one of our great cultural myths about God: “God has the whole universe to worry about—why would God care about my petty little struggles?”
God cares about your struggles because God cares for you. Jesus shows us, in this moment, that there is no ask too small. God is up to something big for the sake of the whole world, yes—but Jesus also takes the time to hear every prayer, to acknowledge everyone who asks. There is no person too irrelevant, too far in the background.
Tomorrow marks one full year since my first Sunday as your pastor. And every Sunday for that whole year, I’ve begun our worship service with the same six words: “Beloved people of God, good morning!”
I do this because I don’t think we can hear those words enough. I really don’t think it is physically possible to be reminded too often that we are, both as a community and as individuals, beloved children of God. There can only be an “all y’all” if there is a you, and a you, and a you, and if you and you and you and you and you believe—like really, truly, unabashedly believe–that you are a beloved child of God, and that no power, no spirit, no illness, no feeling, no action can change that.
That’s one of the very few things in this constantly-shifting world that I am absolutely certain of, and I will remind you of it every chance I get.
This brings us to the second point that Mark drives home for us:
Jesus, being both fully human and fully divine, absolutely holds the heart and mind and power of God—but he also lives in a very human body, which needs things like rest and food and sleep. After he heals half of Capernaum, he leaves town. He finds a field or a hill somewhere to be alone with God, to renew his strength for the journeys ahead.
A couple of weeks ago, in the adult Sunday School class, I asked a question that has haunted me ever since: “when folks are struggling, when they desperately need community, when they’re seeking hope and wholeness, why isn’t the church—why isn’t this where they come?”
And as I’ve chewed on that question and done some research and asked a few close friends, the answer I’ve been left with is both heartbreaking and challenging: “because they’re not sure they’ll find those things here.”
The church is great at praying for and supporting people with physical injuries or illnesses. We can cope with all sorts of diagnoses and surgeries. We’ll share pretty openly that we’ve had that surgery, too, or someone we know has that diagnosis. We can bring you food and keep up with your treatments and offer prayers of hope and thanksgiving when things are going well, and prayers of concern and intercession when they’re not.
But by and large, the church is not usually a safe place to talk about mental illness—or, for that matter, mental health. If you walk into any church and say “I have depression, and I’m struggling right now,” you’re more likely to be told it’s your own fault—that you’re guilty of something or you haven’t prayed enough or your faith is lacking—than to be referred for counseling or asked if you’ve seen a doctor.
We want to help. We do. But that doesn’t mean we’re always the best-equipped people to do it.
Church attendance and prayer are absolutely places and tools for community, rest, and rejuvenation—but these are not on their own sufficient treatment for things like depression or anxiety disorders or any other illnesses. We can pray for healing and hope, but we can also pray for doctors to prescribe the right medications and therapists to provide proper treatments. I am not ashamed to say that therapy changed my life, and probably saved it at least once—and medication has saved countless faithful people whom I know and love, offering them a renewed hope for life, and life abundant.
God has given us doctors and therapists and psychiatrists and counselors—God has called those beloved people to do the long and difficult work of healing. Our task, as the church, is to walk alongside those people as they seek wellness and wholeness, to learn the lingo of treatments and meds and support groups. Our job is to empower and encourage those healers as they live out their call. Our prayers, in this way, can make all the difference.
Gerald May is a medical doctor who practices psychotherapy in Washington, DC—and he writes of the importance of community in the healing process:
“God’s grace through community involves something far greater than other people’s support and perspective. The power of grace is nowhere as brilliant nor as mystical as in communities of faith. Its power includes not just love that comes from people and through people but love that pours forth among people, as if through the very spaces between one person and the next.”
Pastor P.C. Enniss adds: “Just to be in such an atmosphere is to be bathed in healing power. Jesus ‘came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her.’ The power of touch, of intimacy, of nearness, to make whole: Jesus must have understood that which we are too often too slow to comprehend. Love not expressed, love not felt, is difficult to trust. Theologically speaking, that is the reason for incarnation. God knew the human need for nearness. Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love, which makes it all the more demanding (if frightening) to realize that for some people, we are the only Jesus they will ever know.”
Jesus, when he reached out a hand to heal, looked beyond any illness to see a person—one of God’s own beloved children. We, too, can offer that same grace.
But here’s the thing: I am not actually Jesus. You are not Jesus. None of us can be in all times or all places. I can’t even be trusted to answer my phone every time it goes off without letting it go to voicemail. So all of us, when we find ourselves loving someone who is not well, will need backup.
If you have your cell phone with you, I’ll invite you to pull it out for a minute. If you don’t have a phone with you, grab a pen. Create a new contact. You can call it Bob, or Lifeline, or whatever you need to, but in just a moment, I’m going to give you two numbers.
The first is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. This is a 24/7 hotline for anyone who’s thinking about self-harm or experiencing suicidal thoughts. It’s completely confidential—no one will ever know you called unless you tell them, and it’s a safe, completely non-judgmental space to just talk.
Here’s the number: 1-800-273-8255
The second number is a Crisis Text Line. If you hate talking on the phone, or you can’t say what you need to say out loud, you can text this number and you’ll get a text back within 10 minutes. The same rules apply: it’s 24/7, completely confidential, and a safe space.
Here’s that number: 741-741
You may never need these numbers—but today, it is my most fervent prayer that if you do need them, or if you know someone who does, you won’t have to go far to find them. I will always do my best to answer my phone when you call—and please, call any time—but sometimes, it’s easier to tell a complete stranger whom you’ll likely never see in person what’s going on in your head than to tell someone face to face.
One last thing:
Jesus’ primary mission was to preach the good news, that the kingdom of heaven had come near. But everywhere he went, people who needed help reached out to him—and everywhere he went, he reached back, always with love.
More than anything else, I want you to hear today: asking for help is not weakness. In fact, asking for help is the most courageous and hopeful thing you could possibly do.
And that’s why we come to this table—not because we are strong. Not because we have it all together, and not because we know exactly what we’re doing.
We come to receive Christ’s presence among us, to immerse ourselves in this grand story of remembrance, communion, and hope. We come to be fed, to receive strength and nourishment for this earthly journey.
This is Christ’s table, and absolutely everyone is welcome.