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Hard Knocks: Sermon 3

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Sermon, Epiphany 3A                                                                   Jeffrey B. MacKnight
22 January 2017                                                                         St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda


Chopping cabbage, carrots, celery, and potatoes…. That’s what I spent a few hours doing on Monday morning, MLK day.  It was a day of service organized by Washington Hebrew Congregation, our neighbors down Mass. Ave.  Hundreds of youth and adults from all over the city did numerous kinds of work to help poor people.  My group was prepping veggies for a number of soup kitchens.  It was good, honest work to be doing.  I enjoy working with food.  And I emerged without cutting myself – just one callous! 

Doing something active, and doing something for somebody else, are two good ways to combat the symptoms of mental illness, which often include profound lethargy, a sense of paralysis and futility.  Mental illness is our “hard knocks” topic today.

I hasten to add that these activities can help with symptoms, but they do not lessen, much less cure, mental illness.  Illnesses of the mind have many causes, including proven chemical causes in the brain.  These are medical conditions. They have no simple or easy solutions. 

I’ll bet everybody here has direct experience with mental illness – either you’ve suffered from it yourself, or you know somebody well who has.  Maybe you know what it’s like to be Eeyeore – feeling listless and sad for no apparent reason.  Or you know what it’s like to be Winnie the Pooh – trying to be a good friend to Eeyeore, even when that’s hard to do.  I’ve been on both sides myself. 

The Mayo Clinic defines Mental illness as a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors.

To that, I would add dementia, which is such a huge part of our lives now, as human beings live longer.  These illnesses seriously affect the quality of life for sufferers and companions alike.  The stress of living with someone whose mental capacities are diminishing daily is unbelievable.  If you’ve lived with an addict, or if you are one yourself, you know how destructive that is.  And we know that mental illness is one driver of heinous acts of violence such as shooting…although there are other factors that need addressing as well. 

Now, to the Gospel passage today.  In Matthew, Jesus does not begin his public ministry until John the Baptist is imprisoned, indicating that Jesus was a disciple of John’s.  When Jesus does announce his own mission, he quotes Isaiah: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  This is the nature of Jesus’ message: God is bringing light where there was only darkness. 

Was Jesus referring to mental illness here?  No, at least not particularly.  Jesus was announcing liberation from many oppressors – many sources of darkness.  These included oppressive poverty, the oppression of Roman occupation, oppressive class structures in society, and yes, the oppression of mental and physical diseases.  Jesus’ healing stories fill the Gospels!  Many of them are mental healings – freeing persons from demons and unclean spirits.  That’s the way they understood mental illness in Jesus’ day.  Jesus wanted people to be healthy and whole.  Jesus wants us to be healthy and whole!  We should never forget that – especially when we are feeling anything but whole. 

But the world is an imperfect world – beautiful, but imperfect: full of risks, hurts, disease, and misfortune.  People suffer – we all suffer in various ways.  And that gives us opportunity to help, to minister to people who really need it.  It’s like chopping vegetables for the soup kitchen – it feels good to help someone feel a little better, or at least a little less alone. 

And here, religion and science come together.  Scientists have developed tools to reduce human suffering.  For mental illness, many of these tools are drugs.  I am indebted to several of these drugs which have helped me since I first had trouble in college with overwhelming depression.  I am grateful these drugs exist.  Other treatments are crucial, too – talk therapy, cognitive therapies, and even electroshock therapy for some people. 

I asked my psychiatrist on Friday what one thing she’d want you to know about mental illness.  She said mainly that she wanted people to understand these are diseases of the brain, causing great suffering – just as physical diseases can. 

For addictive personalities, the 12-step movement has saved millions of lives, through hard, constant work – a lifetime of recovery.  Twelve step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous are spiritual communities, often functioning like churches.  Our church has much to learn about the mutual support given in such groups, much of it one-on-one. 

Coping with dementia is perhaps the greatest challenge of our generation, because the number of sufferers is growing as the elderly population is growing.  Interestingly, some studies show that the actual prevalence has decreased – that could be very good news indeed.  Still, how do we support people as they enter dementia, and how do we support their caregivers?  Can we sit and talk with someone who has dementia?  Are we willing to offer a few hours respite care?

Finally, I want to touch on stigma, which still exists in American society, and other societies (Maggie has told me it’s worse in Scotland).  We should never, ever tell people to “buck up” or “get over it,” because they can’t – just as a diabetic can’t just “get over” his need for insulin.  We must fight this.  We must talk openly about mental illness as one of many medical problems we face, and advocate for help and treatments just as we do for cancer or heart disease.  Jesus actually destigmatized mental illness in the language of his own day: by addressing demons and unclean spirits who “possessed” people, he removed the fault from the human being himself or herself.  These persons were invaded by malevolent forces – diseases – that needed to be eradicated. 

This is why, every so often, I speak of my own struggles with depression in sermons and articles.  I’ve been treated with medication for many years.  I’ve done talk therapy on and off.  I am so grateful for these treatments, and the people who have helped me obtain them.  For good insurance coverage and family members who understand.  For friends who have stuck by me through my dark hours.  I see all these things – from drugs to friends – as healing gifts from God who loves me and wants the best for me.  That’s the same God who loves you and wants the best for you. 

“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  This is the nature of Jesus’ message: God is bringing light where there was only darkness.  He wants us to walk in that light.  AMEN. 




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Hard Knocks: Sermon 2

Posted 6:52 PM by
Sermon, Epiphany 2A                                                                Jeffrey B. MacKnight
15 January 2017                                                                      St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda


Hard Knocks #3:

When relationships break down: Sin and Forgiveness


“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”

John the Baptist strangely announced Jesus in this way. 

Hard knocks: when we lose important relationships – many ways: through death or physical separation, or through conflict, anger, hurt, and sin.

All week, as I thought about this, I kept coming back to one matter of central concern to Christians: forgiveness.

I’m reminded of a story from my extended family:  in middle age, one member of our family had a fight of some kind with his brother.  The two cut off the relationship and did not speak for over 20 years, though they lived near each other.  It took the death of their sister to break the ice.  What a waste – 20 years without your brother!  No fight, no grudge is worth that loss. 

A strange saying of Jesus begins to make sense in this context: 

“When you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; when you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  (John 20:23)    

God forgives sin readily, eagerly: we know that through the suffering love of Jesus.  But humans do not forgive so easily.  We are good at grudges, we can nurse them along like some prized orchid…as if they were things of beauty! 

Yet we see the devastation we work when we don’t, can’t, refuse to forgive.  We think we are hurting the one who hurt us: getting back at him; making her suffer; tit-for-tat.  Sometimes that’s true.  But mostly, we are planting a cancer in our own hearts that will grow and infiltrate and destroy all that is good and joyful in our lives. 

Think of a time when you really struggled to forgive someone who hurt you deeply.  What happened?  Were you able to forgive in time?  Is the hurt still festering in your heart today?

I can think of several cases, when I felt so hurt and misused, I just couldn’t let go of the injury and resentment that filled my heart.  One time, I kept going over the matter in my head, like a loop tape I could not turn off.  I prayed for release.  I created a small ritual to represent letting go of the resentment I felt…by writing it down, praying to let go, and then burning the paper.  I went to therapy and talked it through.  Eventually, the resentment faded, and I was able to understand, and forgive.

French saying: Tout comprendre c’est tout pardoner. 

When all is understood, all will be forgiven.  It’s a nice, hopeful thought, and I’ve often wondered if it is true.  Perhaps that’s part of what heaven is about: when we have full understanding, we can accept others, and ourselves, as we are, warts and all. 

Rituals may help us.  We Anglicans like our rituals!  I have a book on marking life events with blessings and rituals, including “A blessing ritual for a broken trust” – for acknowledging an affair outside of marriage, and pledging to work to restore the relationship.  This is hard, hard work to do, and we need to ask God’s help with it.  There are other rituals for asking release from long-held anger and resentment. These are all grouped under the heading: “Letting Go.”  In the end, that’s what forgiveness is: letting go…and giving it up to God. 

Because sin and pain are real, we have to make room for sorrow in our faith, in our church life – not to dwell on it endlessly, but to acknowledge that sorrow that is a real part of human life.  Hymns help us with this:

To think on Jesus: “When I survey the wondrous cross….”

To remember how much God has forgiven us: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy…” 

There are Christian preachers who seem to promise a perpetual rose garden in life – if we believe the right things, maintain a positive attitude, behave the right way…and send money to their television “ministry”!  But that’s not the way life is really. 

Any religious faith worth its salt has to make room for sorrow, the honest grief that comes from real losses.  We love to celebrate the good things in life at church – babies born, weddings, all the blessings of our lives – and that’s good to do.  But we also need to grieve death and loss.  Our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers can teach us something about this, in their emphasis on Jesus’ suffering sacrifice on the cross…. 

MLK Day – a day that calls us to remember the more sordid and shameful parts of our national history, and to renew our commitment to equal opportunity, fair treatment, and justice in this country.  I am reading the acclaimed new novel “The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead.  It is an excellent novel, but it is hard to read of the sordid ways white people terrorized black people through fear, beatings, sexual abuse, and mutilations of black bodies.  God knows, there is much horrific sin here; so much to be rectified, so much to be forgiven.  It is staggering.  Any offense ever done to me, as a free, privileged, white male, is tiny by comparison. 

While many changes in law and society have reduced the horrors faced by black people in the United States, we have a long way to go.  Black lives do matter, and we must say so, because they are the ones who are getting shot so often.  Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us that control over black bodies was at the heart of slavery, and then of Jim Crow, and we, as a society, still use violence to control black bodies. 

We are not there yet; the struggle must continue.  Dr. King exhibited an amazing ability to refrain from lashing out in anger and violence, even though he was surely provoked.  Did he forgive his tormenters? We don’t know his heart, but in his words and actions he portrayed a forgiving nature, even as he fought the wrongs against African Americans. 

So, forgiveness is hard, very hard.  Sin is real; we hurt each other terribly.  Relationships are broken, and may never recover.  That’s the bad news. 

The good news is that we can strive to forgive.  We can work at it.  We can pray for it. We can ask God to help us do it, because God clearly has sharpened God’s forgiveness skills for millennia dealing with human beings.  Remember that story about Adam, Eve, and the serpent? 

We started with the strange name by which John the Baptist announced Jesus: “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  So, can Jesus really do this – take away our sins?  Well, yes: he reaches out to us and offers to take all our sins upon himself.  It’s an amazing gift of love.  But we have to be willing to hand our sins to him, and not just our sins, but our grudges, our bitterness, our dearly-held resentments against others.  And that’s where forgiveness comes in.  We have to let them go: open our hands and our hearts, and let the cancer drain out of us.  It’s one of life’s greatest challenges, and it promises life’s greatest rewards. 




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Hard Knocks: Sermon 1

Posted 3:48 PM by
Sermon, Epiphany I  Baptism of Jesus                                        Jeffrey B. MacKnight
Jan 8, 2017  “Hard Knocks” series                                            St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda


I don’t like tunnels. 

We must first go down, down, down into the darkness, not knowing what we’ll find, what we’ll have to experience.  We have faith that we’ll emerge again into the light and air. My own phobia is getting stuck in a tunnel, in the dark depths.  I don’t like to think about that. 

Sometimes, when times are really tough, it feels like that old joke about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and then realizing it’s a roaring train headed right for us. 

Baptism of Jesus – Jesus is baptized into a fully human life: it starts with human birth, ends in a fully human death.  No way around that.  The liturgy even tells us that we are being baptized into Christ’s death – not a pleasant thought.  But we know it’s true: none of us is exempt from death.  It’s part of being fully human. 

This is the beginning of a new sermon series:  Hard Knocks.  It starts with baptism into human condition: the greatest joys, satisfactions, triumphs, and glories…and the deepest, darkest times that come with loss, hurt.  If we love deeply, we shall suffer deeply…they go together. 

Isaiah: “Here is my servant, my chosen – I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”  This servant, whom Christians understand to be Jesus, is tender, gentle with us, because we are vulnerable human beings: “A bruised reed he will not break, a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”  He is to be a “light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, bring prisoners from the dungeon.”  We are the ones this savior comes to help; we are the ones who are blind, who are locked in prisons of all sorts. 

We leap ahead 600 years to Matthew’s gospel – Jesus must be baptized to fulfill all righteousness – because he was fully human.  The Spirit comes upon him, yes, but not to protect or exclude him from human pain, loss, and final death.  He is vulnerable, he is like us.  He’s going to endure a lot of loss, hurt, and dejection in his life, hard knocks, like us.  He’s going to die, like us.  And yet, he’ll come back, he’ll live and love again, he’ll be restored to life…like us. That’s the journey, and that’s the promise.  Our own baptismal liturgy is clear about this – we are baptized into the death of Jesus. 

Like all of you, I know something of death – both the literal and the figurative kind.  The early deaths of two of my brothers have been hard; struggles with depression have been part of my own life, and have affected me deeply.  There are no quick fixes.  And each of us has our own stories. 

This is the stuff of real life.  Our human bodies and minds are far from perfect; they fail us.  The world can be unkind, even cruel.  Relationships are hard, and they often break down.  Loving people does mean we’ll get hurt.  And yet not to love…that would be the most impoverished way to live – empty, sterile, without much meaning. 

That’s when we find ourselves in the tunnel, in a dark place, searching for a point of light, a sign of hope, some signal that joy might be possible again in the future.  That’s when Christians look at the cross, and the suffering of Jesus upon it, and remind ourselves that God has more to say than death. 

Weeping may linger for the night,
   but joy comes with the morning.   (ps. 30)

So I want to explore some of life’s hard knocks in the next several weeks of sermons.  I’ll try to keep a sense of humor, even as we discuss difficult things.  I could list many of these, but I’d rather know: What are the events and experiences in your own life that come to mind?  Please, shout them out!   

Whatever you have faced, I believe two things can help:

1.     The love of God can comfort us when we are hurting.
2.     The Christian community can be a great support, when we know that a member is suffering.

Although I’m the priest, and you may think I’m the one that gives comfort, I have also received amazing gifts of support, prayer, and empathy from this community.  I know how powerful that is…I believe that is part of the power of resurrection, the power that brings us back up out of the depths, out of the darkness, into the light. 

It can begin with the prayers for healing we offer each Sunday after communion.  It could be a visit in the hospital, or a meal brought by your home.  Reading the psalms is a time-tested source of comfort for Christians.  Counseling can help immensely.  Singing hymns can be powerful.  Receiving the bread and wine of Eucharist strengthens us. We have many tools to help us get through the hard knocks. 

But I think the path of healing starts with our admission that we are baptized into the vulnerability of being human, and there is no escape for that.  How we deal with the hard knocks in life can make all the difference.  We’re much better off seeking help – from God, and from other people.  That’s what Christian community is for.  Thank God we are not in this life alone.  We have a God who loves us and wants the best for us, and we have a church community who care for us.  We don’t have to go through the dark tunnel – the shadow of death – by ourselves.  Thanks be to God.  


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