Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, preached an extremely memorable sermon on today’s Gospel at General Convention in 2012. I didn’t hear it firsthand, but you can watch it on YouTube or read it in his book, and the title of the book comes from that sermon: Crazy Christians.
In the translation we heard today, we hear: “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain [Jesus], for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”” Bishop Curry played with some alternate translations of that verse, including the 1995 Contemporary English Version: “When Jesus’ family heard what he was doing, they thought he was crazy and went to get him under control.”
Sometimes a translation doesn’t need to be pious or beautiful to get something across. His family thought he was crazy. And with good reason, because the things Jesus is doing and preaching and teaching are crazy. And Jesus’ family did what most of us tend to do when we experience crazy: they tried to get rid of the crazy and get Jesus back under control. Back to sanity.
So Bishop Curry preached—and I agree with him—that we need some crazy Christians. Crazy like Jesus. We need Christians who are crazy enough to believe that the poor are blessed… or that the dead can be raised… or that love is the most powerful force in the world. Crazy enough, as he says, to dare to change the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God has for it.
But the Gospel continues with an example of the “craziness” of Jesus—it’s not just his family, it’s others who think he’s possessed by a demon, and he tells a little parable about demons and Satan and then says some weird things about forgiveness and sin: “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”
People will be forgiven for anything except… the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
Jesus is saying there is some sort of limit to forgiveness.
But what is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?
What is unforgivable?
And maybe even more scarily, who is unforgivable?
In our cultural Christianity, there is an action that is sometimes pointed to as an unforgivable sin—the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Suicide.
And that has come up this week in our cultural consciousness; but it really comes up all the time, because suicide is growing more and more common and because depression, anxiety, and mental illnesses are so common and yet so stigmatized that we don’t treat them. And occasionally, depression is so overwhelming, so beyond our capacity and knowledge to treat it, that it is a fatal illness. Dying from your disease is not a sin.
The blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not suicide.
I’m not sure exactly what the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is. Jesus doesn’t tell us. I don’t recommend doing what I did this week, which was to google “Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” There are a lot of people out there who believe they know EXACTLY what is unforgivable to God.
I sought answers in history. Thomas Aquinas suggests a lot of sins that might be sins against the Holy Spirit, all of which are simultaneously too broad and too specific and include probably every one of us at some point. They did include despair, as Aquinas defined it: believing that your evil is greater than God’s mercy and goodness. That’s definitely a sin—but it points to the absurdity of the exercise. No sin that we can do, no evil we can commit, is more powerful than the love of God and the mercy of God.
Many of you know I’ve been coaching little league this spring, and one child on the team has some disproportionate negative responses to the trials and travails of playing a game. And during one inning, after an outburst, I said casually to the child’s dad: “You know, I have the name of a really good child therapist if you want it.” And the dad’s response was so telling. He said, “Oh God, no. That would be giving up and admitting that I’d failed.”
Oh, my heart wanted to weep.
Getting help for your child is failing? Or giving up?
Talk therapy doesn’t work for everyone—but it does work for some people. Medication doesn’t work for everyone, but it does work for some people. Depression is an illness that deserves to be treated, just like any other illness. And it doesn’t deserve to be stigmatized—so many saints and holy people in our history, when you read their stories, are so clearly suffering from depression and other forms of mental illness—and yet the church was able—in some cases—to celebrate them as people who had an important experience of God that differed from many people and that was consequently valuable. I’m not sure if Bishop Curry’s talk of needing “Crazy Christians” fits within that totally—I don’t want to glorify mental illness, or make it sound as it if isn’t as difficult and challenging as it is for those who live with or near it. But I do think it serves to say that what the world things of as “normal” is not necessarily desirable for faith. It is the people who are different—and often the people who are suffering—who are so much more in touch with the divine.
Jesus loves people who suffer from depression and all other forms of mental illness. Jesus loves you if you get treatment and if you don’t get treatment. Jesus loves you if you respond to treatment and if you don’t respond to treatment. And Jesus loves the people who love those who struggle with depression, who are sometimes put in such challenging positions. I don’t suffer from clinical depression. But many people I love do.
None of us know what the people around us are struggling with. Look around you today. Look at the faces of these members of our community. Some of the people in this room are struggling with demons. And it might not be the people we think—some of the people who are dressed the best, look the most put together, and laugh the loudest are the people who are struggling with the demon of depression or other mental illness.
A clergy friend of mine posted about this on Facebook this week. She said that when she was a candidate for bishop, she was asked very publicly about her relationship with alcohol—and she was able to state with confidence that she had been sober for decades. But she included in her answer that she battled depression, and at times had been medicated to treat her depression. She wrote that after she said this, when there was time to mingle, many people came up to her and openly shared their own stories of becoming sober. And some people came up to her and shared their struggle with depression and mental illness. But the people who came up to her and talked about their sobriety did so in their normal voices. The people who talked about their mental illness did so in a whisper.
We can publicize helplines, and encourage people who are struggling with depression to get help. That’s good to do. But one of the symptoms of depression is the inability to reach out. Our response to mental illness cannot be just to live and let live; we have to be the ones reaching out.
With that in mind: Is there anyone you need to check in on? Anyone you should call this afternoon and say, “Hi. How are you doing, really? Can we get together for coffee? What can I do to be helpful?”
I find some Good News in the Gospel today in the presence of Jesus’ family. The point of this Gospel passage is obviously not to hold up his family as a positive example, but you know what? They do not give up on him—even if they’re a little misguided in how they want to control their child. They stay outside… they get insulted by their crazy son. But they show up and they are there, even as Jesus is pushing them away. And Jesus’ mom is there at the end. His mom is there as she receives the body of her son, taken down from a cross—a cross he need not have died on if he had listened to the “sane” voices around him, and shut up and stopped preaching what he was preaching. And Jesus recognizes the importance of loving family—whether family of birth or family of choice when he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Here we are—a family in Christ—a family of choice. Here are your brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and children. People to love. People to care for. People to be accountable to. And people to encourage one another, perhaps with the words from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians that we heard this morning:
“So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure… For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”