Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:21-28)
“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”
Have mercy on me.
As I went through this week, that cry, the cry of the Canaanite woman, has grown stronger and stronger in my head. It seems that for many people, this week has been particularly troubling. Just a litany of bad news: there is the growing Ebola epidemic in west Africa; the plight of the Yazidis and the Kurds in Iraq; violent confrontations in Ferguson, Missouri. So much to lament.
On Monday, as you know, the actor and comedian Robin Williams took his own life. We know that for most of his career he has struggled with substance abuse and depression. Yet, his death this week was shocking for so many, in part because his public persona was so joyful, so full of energy and life.
Now, often celebrity deaths are sleazy, unsavory affairs better off left to the tabloids. But ever since the story broke, it’s felt different. Based on the news reports and conversations, his death seems to have sparked a conversation about mental illness—one that is desperately needed in our world.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four adults−approximately 61.5 million Americans−experiences mental illness in a given year. One in four. It’s also estimated that 40 million Americans are affected by depression, the most common mental illness.
That means that a lot of us here today, myself included, have struggled with some form of mental illness. Many of us here today have been in the Canaanite woman’s shoes, crying for help—either silently or aloud. When you are dealing with an illness like depression, it can be hard to know or explain what’s going on with you. It can feel like your suffering is invisible or embarrassing or completely foreign to others.
The Canaanite woman—a forgotten, ignored, marginalized woman—pleads with Jesus, begs him for help. And for a time it seems that even Jesus won’t hear her cries.
“Help me,” she says.
“Ma’am,” replies Jesus, “I’m here for the people of Israel, not you.”
Jesus is speaking here from his own cultural context. You see, the Canaanite woman is marginalized for a number of reasons: she’s a woman in a society that treats women lower than male slaves; she’s likely a widow, so there’s no man in her life to protect and provide for her; she’s from a different tribe, a reviled people—the animosity between the Israelites and the Canaanites go back thousands and thousands of years.
A forgotten, ignored, hated woman. No one understands what she’s going through. No one cares. No one can help.
Let’s be a little honest: The church has not always dealt very well with mental illness.
In those pre-scientific days, the only way to explain mental illness was that you were possessed by a demon. Something evil was inside you, you didn’t believe hard enough, God had forsaken you because you did something wrong.
In the fifth century, Saint Augustine suggested that suicide was a great unpardonable sin, in part because the sinner was not alive to repent. Unfortunately, that perception stuck for centuries, and you hear it even to this day.
But today we understand mental illness as a medical condition—most often the effect of chemical imbalances in the brain. It requires treatment just like a broken bone does. Yes, prayer is a crucial component of any healing process, but acting as if depression or anxiety or any other mental illness is a sign of weak faith or God’s disfavor or inherently sinful is completely wrong. It helps no one. And it ignores the clear message God’s love and mercy we hear today.
“God hasn’t rejected his people,”writes Paul today. “God’s gifts and calling can’t be taken back.”
The consequences of mental illness, no matter how grave, are never enough to cut us off from the love of God that we have come to know through Jesus Christ.
After all, the cultural and social factors that held the Canaanite woman back crumbled in the face of her persistence. The Holy Spirit filled her on that day and guided her to get the help that she needed. And Jesus declared her faith to be great.
Not even death itself can tear us away from God. Jesus has already fought that battle and won it for us.
God’s grace and mercy flow through us, in our actions and in our ministry. So I ask you this question: How can we as a church embrace people living with mental illness? How can we accompany them in their own journeys? How can we wrap them in God’s love?
If you today, feel like the Canaanite woman—lost, alone, frightened—take heart, you are not alone. The people in this room love you and are here to help you. And if you ever feel in such despair that harming yourself or others seems to be the only escape, call me—anytime, day or night. No matter how you may feel on any given day, you are a beloved child of God, wonderfully made in the Creator’s own image.
Mental illness does not discriminate. It’s not held back by income or religious devotion or gender or race or political belief or age. Those things don’t matter to it. But the same is true for God’s love and mercy. Resurrection—new life—shatters all the barriers that we put before it. It’s for all people: those suffering in west Africa, the Yazidis and the Kurds, the people of Ferguson, for Robin Williams and those who loved him, for the Canaanite woman and the disciples and for me and for you. For all of us.
The great preacher Fredrick Buechner once said this about God’s grace:
The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.
No matter how you feel on any given day, know that the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.
[The grace of God means something like:] Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.
Friends, no matter how you feel on any given day, no matter what beautiful and terrible things you experience as you go through life, if you believe and trust in only one thing about God, let it be this: that God loves you, for who you are, always and in all ways.