Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked
“So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?”
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 16, 2020
11th Sunday after Pentecost
[Insert Sunday’s art]
The end of Jesus’ earthly ministry is drawing nigh. At the conclusion of the Passover meal that Jesus shares with his disciples, they sing a hymn together and then head toward Gethsemane. When they reach their destination Jesus tells them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” Then he takes with him those in his inner circle—Peter, James, and John. Jesus, our Jesus, is in anguish and he admits it. “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” It seems a simple request, but the disciples are likely filled with worry and exhausted, too. So, with Jesus a stone’s throw away crying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me…” his closest friends fall fast asleep.
It is hard to think of Jesus being this vulnerable. It is easier to imagine him healing the sick and feeding the multitudes. But Jesus begging his friends to keep watch with him in his hour of need and then those same friends failing him, is heart wrenching. “So, you could not stay awake with me one hour?” While we might be tempted to judge the disciples for their behavior, we would probably have been there snoring right beside them—I mean we’re human, too, and failing one another is something we do more often than we care to admit. In this moment of Jesus’ life, he openly displays his human vulnerability. He shows us that even God-in-the-flesh is susceptible to being wounded and hurt. Oh, the great mystery of our faith and oh, the frailty of us all.
I returned home from a church function on August 11, 2014 to find four text messages on my cell phone—one from each of our children. In essence they read, “Have you heard? Robin Williams has died. Apparent suicide.” Like most of us, my children were crushed by the news. Kinney and I were dating when Mork & Mindy was a hit. Later, as avid movie-goers, our family fell in love with Mrs. Doubtfire and Aladdin. How we enjoyed Popeye and Hook. What inspiration we found in such works as Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poet’s Society, Patch Adams, and Good Will Hunting.
Proverbs tells us that a cheerful heart is good medicine and I believe this to be so. Yet, a man who brought so much laughter to the world could not heal himself with laughter. Instead, a man, who lived the life of fame and fortune, who loved God and was generous and caring, reached a dark, dangerous place out of which he was unable to climb. It is well-known that Robin Williams suffered from bi-polar disorder, characterized by drastic mood swings. But when things progressed beyond anything he had experienced, he reached out again for help. But numerous tests and a brain scan came back negative. It was not until after his death that the autopsy revealed the underlying cause: Lewey Body Dementia, a rare brain disease that can cause hallucinations, motor skill problems, sleep disorders, anxiety, and depression.
I once heard someone say, “You never know what goes on in a person’s mind. Monsters can live there.” This must have been the case for Robin Williams, who struggled with addiction and depression even before something as devastating as a rare brain disease came calling.
Regarding mental illness and addictions, we know a lot more about them than we once did. Nevertheless, there is still a stigma attached to them—as if they are a mark of disgrace. Yet, we find in Scripture that Moses, Elijah, Job, Jeremiah, and David suffered from depression. Then there are historical figures to consider like Abraham Lincoln who wrote, “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall ever be better, I cannot tell…To remain as I am is impossible. I must die or be better, it appears to me.”[i] Charles Spurgeon was tormented by depression. Beethoven and Winston Churchill had bipolar disorder, and the list goes on and on.
Mental illness is real, and it is painful but, thankfully, it is often treatable with the right combination of drugs and therapy. Regardless, people hesitate to discuss it for fear of what people might say or for fear of losing their job or for any number of other very real concerns. It turns out that being vulnerable is risky. Look where it got Jesus—praying alone—heart-broken and afraid—and, ultimately, crucified. Still, to be the church of Jesus Christ compels us to be vulnerable—to be authentic. For the truth of our human condition is: We all suffer from something—and none of us get out of this alive.
One summer when I was about 6 years old, my mother traveled from New York to visit us on my grandparent’s farm in North Carolina. She was eye-catching with her red hair and porcelain skin, but I could not help noticing numerous horizontal scars that marked her arms. When she caught me glancing at them she softly explained, “When your father and I got a divorce and I knew I had lost you both, I didn’t want to live anymore, so I tried to hurt myself.” So lovely on the outside—but inside so fragile.
Fast-forward a few years and I was 16 when a trusted physician took me aside to explain: “Although your father is high-functioning, he suffers from paranoid-schizophrenia.” There I sat, weeping for what seemed like an eternity. For years, I had been convinced that the chaos around me was my fault, but in a moment, everything changed.
Mental illness has affected many of us. If we have not suffered directly, we may be close to someone who has. In case there is any doubt, as your spiritual leader, allow me to make something clear. Our faith community is a safe space to share our challenges and our hurts, whether physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual. Life is wonderful but it can also be difficult. Why not lean on one another!
Anne Lamott, an author (and a Presbyterian), who has been open about her own struggles with addiction and mental illness, writes:
If you have a genetic predisposition towards mental problems and addiction…life here feels like you were just left off here one day, with no instruction manual, and no idea of what you were supposed to do; how to fit in; how to find a day’s relief from the anxiety, how to keep your beloved alive; how to stay one step ahead of the abyss…
In [all suffering]…we see Christ crucified… The temptation is to say, as cute little believers sometimes do, ‘Oh it will all make sense someday.’ The thing is, it may not. [Nonetheless], we still sit with scared, dying people; we get the thirsty drinks of water…
Try not to squander your life…Get help. I did. Be a resurrection story…Gravity yanks us down…We need a lot of help getting back up. And even with our battered banged up toolboxes and aching backs, we can help others get up, even when for them to do so seems impossible or at least beyond imagining. Or if it can’t be done, we can sit with them on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity…[ii]
What can we do to help those who suffer from mental and emotional illness? What can we do if we need help ourselves? Maybe, we can start by breaking the silence. Maybe we can celebrate the gifts of every person because every person is made in God’s image. And could we do this: Could we treat everyone with kindness? We should—because—you see—we all suffer from something—and none of us get out of this alive. Amen.
[i] Quoted in Why Do Christians Shoot Their Wounded, Dwight L. Carlson, 24.
[ii] Anne Lamott as share on Facebook.
*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009