Depression and Christian Practice: A Sermon following Robin Williams’ death

I rarely publish my sermons, and I rarely preach a sermon as long as this one, but some folks convinced me it might be helpful to put this one out there. The gospel for the day was Matthew 15: 21-28, which reads…. 

Jesus & Canaanite Woman (Augsburg Press)

Jesus & Canaanite Woman (Augsburg Press)

   Jesus left Gennesaret 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.

The news of Robin Williams’ death was very hard. He was a comic genius and a fine actor. By all reports he was also an amazingly generous man. I grew up watching Mork & Mindy. I was Mork for Halloween one year. “Good Morning Vietnam” is number two on my list of favorite movies.

Robin Williams

Robin Williams

The news of his suicide was hard, but it was especially hard for those suffering with depression. To be clear, this is a lot of people. According to the CDC, about 10% of Americans say they are depressed at least occasionally, and about 3.4% are clinically depressed.

It has been said many times this week that comic genius and depression often accompany one another. It is also true that faith and depression accompany one another. From John of the Cross to Thomas Merton to Barbara Crafton, some of the most insightful and eloquent spiritual teaching and writing has come to us from those who were living the dark night of the soul.

Robin Williams grew up Episcopalian and is known for his “Top Ten reasons to be an Episcopalian.” Although as an adult he wasn’t a member of a congregation, to anyone’s knowledge, he did speak in interviews about the role of his faith in his recovery from addiction. And his extensive work raising money for good causes and entertaining troops serving abroad show someone determined to help others, someone with a calling to self-giving, even while carrying a good bit of suffering himself.

So what happened? Did he not have “enough faith”? Is he the negative example to contrast with the positive example of the Canaanite woman in today’s gospel, whose faith was so strong that she got her daughter healed?

Certainly some in the media think that is the case. Robin Williams was called a coward by a Fox News commentator shortly after the news of his death was announced. Some Christian bloggers dismissed him as not having tried hard enough, not having turned to God fully, some even opining about his fate after death.

In light of all that racket, I want to say very firmly and clearly today that I do not believe Robin Williams’ death was a failure of faith. It was not a moral failure of any sort. Depression is not a moral failure or a result of personal or spiritual weakness. God does not judge those who are depressed or expect them to “snap out of it,” or “try harder to be happy,” and neither should we. Wherever and whenever there is mental or emotional anguish, God’s heart is breaking, too.

And if we believe that God’s son was sentenced and killed by a distorted and oppressive regime where a kingdom of love could not be tolerated, then surely God is welcoming home someone whose brilliance and wit was so often directed at the distortions and oppressions of our own age.

The woman in today’s gospel whom Jesus commends for her faith was not depressed. She was well enough to advocate for someone else who was ill – someone ill with “a demon,” which could mean any number of things, including mental illness. The Canaanite woman was persistent in the face of the prejudices and barriers of that day in changing hearts and minds, including Jesus’s. Any Israelite of that time would have referred to Gentiles as dogs. It’s just what people said; it’s how they were taught to see the world. Of course, they thought, she and her daughter don’t deserve help from a Jewish healer. The Canaanites are our ancient enemies. They aren’t good enough. They are, in fact, a threat. They don’t follow the Torah; they don’t worship our God.

But this woman persists. Her love for her daughter and her vision of a different future, her sense that this Jesus might be persuaded to bring them into fullness of life, too, keeps her going. And so there she is, on behalf of her daughter, who isn’t well enough to be there.

Might she be a role model for all of us? The fight for mental health services is on, in our country, at a time when access is very limited and lots of forces conspire to keep those who need therapy, medication, and group support from getting them. Ignorance and fear, some of it fueled by bad theology, continue to perpetuate stigma around depression, anxiety, addiction, and other conditions, which so isolates those who need support.

I’ve never been clinically depressed, but I have suffered from anxiety, so I know something of what it feels like to have well-meaning friends tell you to “just read this book” or assume you’re not taking your day off. My anxiety came on after my twins were born, and even with access to good medical care and with a great husband and other great resources, it was very, very hard. Fortunately, I dealt with this just after a wave of books came out about post-partum depression and anxiety, so there was a growing sense that this was a “thing” that we could discuss and that wasn’t so rare. I am so thankful for those who were advocating for greater understanding, compassion, and support for new mothers – they were the Canaanite women who paved a path to healing for me.

Their work isn’t done, and neither is ours. Here are some next steps:

  1. Continue learning about mental illness, and find out how to support those who are ill, as well as their family members and caretakers. Here is a good place to start. And here is a beautiful resource from within the Christian tradition.
  1. Consider how our own parish might be even more helpful to those suffering from depression and anxiety. I think we do a lot of things well already, and I am so thankful for the ways in which all of you “take what you need and offer what you have” as people struggle with various challenges. But perhaps the Spirit has a word for us about next steps. Let’s listen for that.

Anna Voskamp – one of the best-known Christian bloggers out there, encourages parishes to recognize that lament and darkness and confusion are part of our spiritual heritage — right there in the Bible in lots of places, and God invites us to name that. She writes, “Don’t only turn up the praise songs but turn to Lamentations and Job and be a place of lament and tenderly unveil the God who does just that — who wears the scars of the singe. A God who bares His scars and reaches through the fire to grab us and hold tight to us.”

  1. Work for greater access to mental health resources. Many people in this parish do this every day, or know a lot about what the specific legislation is that’s on the docket at any moment in time due to their work as nurses, social workers, crisis intervention specialists, special education advocates, or teachers. Let the parish know. Bring in the petitions. Call on us to picket or write letters.
  1. Speak out when you hear people say shaming or dismissive things. Here’s a beautiful example: The organization Planting Peace heard that Westboro Baptist Church was going to protest at Robin Williams’ funeral, they decided to counteract that message of hate with a work of love. They are raising money for St. Jude Children’s Hospital, a cause Robin Williams supported for years. You can join the campaign here.
  1. Finally, we can keep praying with those suffering with depression and for them. We can keep checking in with them, keep inviting them out for dinner or for a walk. We can persist in letting them know they are beloved. This is holy work — Sometimes, livesaving work.

Finally, today, I want to celebrate some signs of hope:

I celebrate that thousands of people spoke out against the comments by the Fox news reporter who used the word “coward” in regard to Robin Williams’ death.

I celebrate that a friend who wrestled with depression all through seminary has gone on to a thriving, healthy ministry and marriage.

And finally, I celebrate that Jesus, after voicing the assumptions of his society about gentiles being dogs, goes on in the next chapter of Matthew’s gospel to feed 4,000 gentiles. Jesus’s ministry transforms from one directed to a bounded group, of which he is a member, to one of outreach and border-crossing and transgression of givens. Here is the Lord we are called to follow. Let us do so with thanksgiving and hope.

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About amymccreath

I'm a pastor and mother who loves to make connections between people, between ideas, and between stuff we label "sacred" and "secular." I aspire to be like a Cedar of Lebanon in the midst of the changes and chances of life, but like most folks, generally find that I can really only navigate the tumult hand in hand with others. Good coffee helps, too.
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One Response to Depression and Christian Practice: A Sermon following Robin Williams’ death

  1. Renee says:

    An amazing sermon. Thank you.

Comments are closed.