Sermon: Living out a Mental Health First Aid Action Plan

[Jesus went home] and the crowd came together again, so that [Jesus and the disciples] could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
“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”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Mark 3:20-35

My sermon from the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost (June 9, 2024) on Mark 3:20-35.

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Earlier this week, I attended a “Mental Health First Aid” training here at the church. The two day event hosted by Meals on Wheels of North Jersey was to help us recognize and respond when people go through a mental health crisis. Nearly 1 in 5 adults, every year, will experience some kind of  mental health issue and youth and young adults are affected as well. Being mentally healthy doesn’t mean we’re always happy, comfortable, and secure. When we’re mentally well, we respond in ways that seem reasonable while living through joyous or difficult things.  If, for example, we do poorly on a test or we’re ghosted by someone we’re into – we’re supposed to get sad, angry, anxious, and more. Those are appropriate responses to something that is hard. But when these feelings linger for weeks at a time, impacting our ability to go to work, school, or take care of ourselves, we might be in the midst of a mental health crisis. Those attending the training were invited to learn how to respond well when a person they know starts to be a little different from who they knew them to be. And while doing that work can be hard, it’s also one of the primary ways we choose to be for each other – no matter what. 

What that care looks like, though, isn’t always easy to figure out since I’m not a mental health professional and God has not called me to diagnose the people around me. What we need is some kind of action plan we can follow when we don’t know what to do. And the training provided one – using the acronym “algee” – a l g e e – to imagine that care can look like. So the first thing we do is “Approach and Assess.” Rather than backing away when someone seems a bit different, we make sure it’s safe and then pay closer attention to whatever they’re going through. This assessment might even include doing the difficult thing of asking if our friend might be suicidal. While we assess, we move pretty quickly into the next stage of the acronym, L, by choosing to “listen non judgmentally.” It’s not helpful or our role to tell someone to calm down, man up, or to just get over it. We can, instead, let them know we’re concerned and we wonder how long they’ve been feeling this way. This kind of listening is hard because we often feel incredibly awkward while doing it. We don’t really know what to say and we might get upset when someone doesn’t accept the help we’re trying to give. Listening is a skill that is both exhausting and life-giving all at the same time. And while we do listen to the person who is suffering, we can move into the “G” of the acronym by giving them assurance that we’re with them and then share any information we might have. This kind giving can include the double “e” of encouraging them to seek appropriate professional help while also encouraging them to practice self-care since therapy, medication, and just taking a break doesn’t mean we’re not good enough or that we’ve somehow failed at life. This action plan isn’t meant to be linear since we often find ourselves listening, encouraging, assessing, listening, and encouraging over and over again. But it can help guide us through those situations when the people we care about aren’t who we expect them to be and this plan might even help us grow into who we can become too. 

I was thinking about the acronym “Algee” while noticing what happened to Jesus in our reading from the gospel according to Mark. Jesus, it seemed, was caught in the difficult situation of being challenged by many religious leaders as well as his own family all at the same time. Both were concerned with not only what Jesus was doing but also with whatever seemed to be happening within him. The leaders imagined that Jesus was, somehow, possessed by demons while even his mom thought he was completely out of his mind. Our notion of mental health is very different from what was commonly thought when Jesus’ walked the earth 2000 years ago. But I wonder if both of these groups thought Jesus needed an intervention because he wasn’t acting in ways they thought he should. Jesus’ own family and the scribes noticed how he kept talking to people he didn’t use to talk to in the past, while offering forgiveness in ways they didn’t expect, and he kept forming bonds with people he was supposed to exclude. Jesus kept talking about how the kingdom of God was near and yet the kingdom Jesus practiced didn’t have the boundaries they assumed it had. We should, I think, give Jesus’ family and the religious leaders the benefit of the doubt. They, I believe, were doing what they could do to live out God’s will. But when they were confronted by the life Jesus chose to live, they didn’t know what to say or do. And they soon fell into the trap we often fall into as well – expecting God, in the words of Professor C. Clifton Black, to abide by our own definitions of what the boundaries of God’s kingdom should be. We act, trust, and honestly believe that what we think is good, holy, and true match what God wants in our world. But Jesus often has a habit of showing how God’s boundaries are always much bigger than our own. This reality can be scary, challenging, and strange since we assume we know what God’s baseline alway is. Yet the baseline Jesus put into practice is always bigger since the kingdom Jesus lives out is a kingdom big enough to include us too. 

On the surface, Jesus’ family and the religious leaders didn’t really do a great job living into any kind of mental health first aid action plan. Jesus’ actions, teachings, and behaviors didn’t match what they considered normal and so their assessment led them to challenge rather than to listen. Jesus, in their mind, was dividing the community when it came to what God’s people were supposed to say and do. Yet much of Jesus’ ministry was about discovering how expansive God’s kingdom truly was. We, I think, often let our own notions of normal, holy, and healthy, get in the way of noticing what God is up to. We let the boundaries we define be the limit of what life can be rather than letting God show us what life can become. It’s an approach to living that we pretend includes us even though we are never as perfect, good, and loving as we demand others be. And we act as if these boundaries we put into place are the same boundaries God has already built even though Jesus’ love will always be more. This more isn’t only big enough to include the people we assume are with our God. It’s also a love big enough to include someone like you. You, through baptism and faith, have already been made part of what God is up to in the world. And while living into that truth can be hard, it is how God transforms us into who God imagines we can be. We won’t always get this kind of living right nor will we, while living through our own mental health issues, always be able to live into the kingdom God has already brought us into. But we can trust that when Jesus made us a part of His holy family, he meant it, and that he will be the One who will carry us through. 

Amen.

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