Today is what we call ‘Baptism of the Lord’ Sunday in the church calendar – this year, with our schedule of readings, we skip straight from toddler Jesus being worshipped by the magi to adult Jesus, ready to begin his public ministry.

And if you’re on social media, you might also remember that we’re beginning a new sermon series this week that will take us all the way up to the beginning of Lent – and we’re calling it “Blessed Are The Crazy.” So over the next several weeks, we’re going to take a look at several aspects of mental health and mental illness, and how we as the church respond to those things.

It may not seem like a direct line from baptism to mental health, but I think you’ll be surprised—the two are more related than we think.

First Reading: Matthew 3:13-17
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

Second Reading: Acts 10:34-43
Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’

In the passage from Acts that we just heard, the apostle Peter – the same guy who followed Jesus and asked silly questions and denied Jesus after his arrest and witnessed the resurrected Christ and received the Holy Spirit and preached to thousands at Pentecost – that guy is now wandering through Israel, preaching the gospel.

Through a miraculous series of events, he winds up in the home of a Roman centurion (who was not Jewish) telling him and his whole family the story of God’s promises and Jesus’ death and resurrection. What we just heard is what Peter tells them, and while he’s speaking the Holy Spirit comes to each of them – and they believe, even though they’re Gentiles. Peter and his companions are mind-blown, but Peter says: “how could we possibly withhold baptism from those who have received the Holy Spirit, just as we did?”

So all of them are baptized, then and there.

Peter got in a bit of trouble for that with the rest of the apostles, but he couldn’t deny what God was doing in that place – even when it meant going against what he thought the plan was.

 Baptism, and the love that it represents for us, doesn’t always follow the neat, clear paths we’ve laid out for it.

One of the ways baptism lays claim to us in new and unpredictable ways is by uniting us with Christ – so when we’re baptized, we are sharing in Jesus’ baptism (which is the passage Ron read for us.) This means that when you’re baptized, what God says to Jesus when he comes up from the water is also what God proclaims over you:

“this is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”

Everybody’s with me all the way through that part, right?

Now I want us to remember that this also applies to every single person you meet – including the people you absolutely cannot stand and the people who cannot or will not regulate their own behavior. 

This is where I usually lose folks, or people start saying some not-red-carpet appropriate things in their heads.

I can almost hear the script running in the background: “Yes, Jesus loves everybody. But everyone else thinks they’re (fill in the blank)”: weird, a failure, lazy, a jerk, hopeless, useless…the list goes on and on.

So I want to pause for a moment to do some theological reflecting here on what grace means and how it works in our lives.

If we think of our salvation like a coin, then it has two sides: on the one hand, God washes away every sin – past, present, and future – in baptism. We are united with Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit and nothing can take God’s love away from us – not our own failings, or the ways we get hurt, or our dysfunctional relationships.  The big theological word for this is “justification,” and that was accomplished for us in Jesus’ death and resurrection – so we can’t undo it.

On the other side of that coin, though is “sanctification.” This is the process that we go through as we wrestle with our own morality and behaviors in light of what God has done for us and what God asks of us. If it helps, you can mess with the word a little bit and think of it as “saint-if-i-ca-tion” – it’s an active process of claiming God’s love for us and becoming the people God calls us to be.

This may not seem like an important distinction, but I promise you that it is: because it means that God’s grace is not dependent on us getting better.

Let me say that again: God’s grace does not depend on us getting better.

And especially for people with mental illnesses, who may struggle with their own minds and actions until the end of their lives, that is good news indeed.

It might not sound like good news to those of us who work really hard at being good or getting better, because we like to be rewarded for hard work and staying out of trouble. It’s ingrained in our American consciousness.

But God’s grace and love and care is a gift, not a reward. The more often we remind ourselves of this, the easier it will be to have compassion for the people who just annoy us, and even those who might not ever be able to live up to the standards of conduct and behavior we set for ourselves.

In her book Rising Strong, researcher and social worker Brené Brown tells a story about a time when she had a really terrible experience with another speaker at a conference, with whom she was guilted into sharing a hotel room. After this terrible experience, she goes home and rants to her therapist about it. And her therapist offers her a piece of wisdom she’s not quite ready to accept:

“Do you think it’s possible that your roommate was doing the best she could that weekend?”

She, unsurprisingly, does not. At least, not yet. But her therapist continues: “I do…think that in general people are doing the best they can.”[1]

Brené is skeptical, but she’s a researcher at heart, so she starts polling—asking grocery checkout clerks, her family and friends, a bank teller, and a few hundred others: do you believe that people are doing the best they can?

She found two things that are important for us as we consider our own ability to show compassion to others:

First, the people who were the most self-critical and perfectionist were the ones most likely to say “DEFINITELY NOT.” They didn’t think they were doing their best, so why should they believe that of others?

Second, the people who did believe that most people were doing the best they could—or, at least didn’t outright reject the idea—they were the people with the best boundaries. She writes: “Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”[2]

Asking for what you need might mean skipping an optional event to stay at home and rest for a few hours. On the flip side, it might mean calling up a friend and saying “hey, let’s grab dinner sometime so we can catch up, because I miss you and I need someone to talk to.”

When our own needs for love, for rest, for care and compassion are met, we’re more likely to be able to extend that same compassion to others.

I think caring for someone with mental health issues is tricky, because it’s largely invisible and we’re not always sure how to respond when someone says: “I’m depressed,” or “my son was just diagnosed with bipolar disorder.” One pastor and author, Rev. Sarah Lund, calls it the no-casserole-illness. No one shows up at your door with a casserole when you say that someone you love has a mental illness. 

But there are some tried-and-true ways that we, as God’s people and as the Church, can care for and love people with mental health issues and their loved ones.

I have five quick tips:

  1. Drop your savior complex. Unless you are a psychiatrist and/or a licensed counselor and/or Jesus himself, you cannot fix mental illness or personality disorders or addictions. There is no one-size-fits-all treatment, even within a particular diagnosis – and it gets even trickier when someone might have two or three things going on all at once. But if you’re close to that person, do ask them about what’s working and what’s not – what are their hopes and frustrations when they start a new medication? How is therapy going? Do they need some practical support (a ride, a gift card, a post-it to stick on their mirror to remind them they are loved?)  
  2. Whenever you can, encourage the person directly affected to get the help they need from professionals. Prayer and singing and long walks outside are great – but they may need something more, and that’s just fine. It’s okay to have Jesus and a good therapist. (And it’s okay for their family members to need some extra love and support, too.)
  3. Ask how you can pray for them. This goes for pretty much everyone all the time, but especially when someone has an illness that affects significant parts of their life – they may have more specific and immediate concerns than praying for miraculous healing. Asking also lets them know you’re listening, and taking them seriously.
  4. Keep yourself safe. There is a line between being compassionate and loving someone despite their flaws and enduring abuse because you think you can help them. Unfortunately, that line tends to be easier to notice in hindsight – but if you think you’re close to it or have crossed it, let’s talk – because you have options.
  5. Expect to make mistakes, and plan on giving yourself grace. Make time to immerse yourself in love, and remember that even when your Saint-if-i-cation isn’t going so well, you cannot undo the words God has spoken over you: “this is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”

I think we all have a little save-the-world in us. Maybe that’s why we’re here.

But it was Jesus, the actual Savior, who gave us this new commandment, which still rings throughout the ages: love one another, just as I have loved you.

This is the word of the Lord.

[1] Brown, Brené . Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (p. 107). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

[2] Ibid, 115.