You might have heard the story earlier this spring. In the small hamlet of Randolph New York, residents woke up one Monday morning to find that many of them had fallen victim in the night to a spate of vandalism. One act of defacement was more troubling than the rest – a long scrawl of a sentence had been sprayed in blue down the side of one of the town’s landmark buildings, Grace Episcopal, a traditional grey New England clapboard church with elegant windows and cheery yellow trim. And, as if the crude letters weren’t trouble enough, the content of the sentence written in permanent blue made matters worse. Down the outer wall of the nave was a cry for help.
“Can I still get to heaven if I kill myself?”
The reality is that depression and mental illness are an epidemic in our culture, which shows no sign of relenting or retreating. At the recent annual luncheon for People Incorporated, a non-profit in the Twin Cities whose sole mission is helping individuals find healing and wholeness, I heard the statistic that today 1 in 4 people are afflicted by depression or some sort of mental illness.
1 in 4!
And the further reality is, for those among us who have suffered these things or walked with someone who has, mental illness and depression can be a kind of death, or in many cases can result in very real death. One of the people who spoke for People Incorporated told the story of surviving his own depression, describing life before alarm clocks and after alarm clocks. In his depression he found no reason to own an alarm clock, let alone set one. Why get up and face the day when there was nothing worth living for?
For those struggling with mental illness and depression, the reality is that it feels disorienting, it saps confidence, steals dignity, and ultimately leaves one feeling like there is no thing or no one worth living for. And, in the face of such a debilitating feeling, in the face of such death, those who struggle often turn to faith, or to some emblem of faith wondering if there is some help beyond themselves. The question on the side of the church summed it all up. Can heaven hold a place for the one who cannot remember their dignity or recall their own worth? Does God care about the forgotten ones, the lost and the tired? Can grace cover us even when we give up the fight for a better life can grace cover us when we take our life?
Of course, we who sit in these pews week in and week out, we who have heard the stories over and over again until our minds are populated with tales of grace and love, we think we know the answer.
This morning in our gospel lesson Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd are on their way into a town and they are confronted by the funeral procession of a man who has just died. Luke tells us that the man was his “mother’s only son” and that she was a widow. Without filling in the blanks, Luke’s first readers would have known that a widow, a woman with neither a husband or a son, was quite possibly one of society’s most vulnerable people. She would have been on the brink of destitution, homelessness, and likely starvation. Without a husband or a son, she had no voice or dignity or hope – she was a nobody, of no account. And, Luke tells us, Jesus had compassion on her.
As Frederick Buechner writes:
Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live in somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy for you too.
Jesus had compassion on the woman, and this did not mean he had pity, that he regarded her from some higher position, from a position of power. No, he had compassion, which means he had a fundamental connection with her through her suffering. He went to where she was, he felt her pain, he entered into her situation. And, if the story of Jesus is the story of the compassionate God, the story of one who entered fully and completely into our situation, into our lives, into our joys and our pain, then the call to us is the same. This will be difficult, because the compassionate life is not an upwardly mobile life. The compassionate life is not concerned with success or prestige or any of the trappings of a life our culture tells us is well-lived. The compassionate life is in fact intentionally headed in the opposite direction. Compassionate living calls us to the places of deep need and suffering, to the widows and orphans, to the depressed and the mentally ill, to the homeless and those who have nothing – and the compassionate life invites us to take up residence there, to meet those we encounter there with the same dignity we’d afford ourselves, to count them as friends. This is the story of our gospel. This is the story of God with us.
So, when confronted by the question scrawled down the side of Grace Episcopal, we think we know the answer – of course God’s grace knows no limits! Of course heaven holds a place for the lost and the depressed and the ones who cannot keep going! Of course God cares! We can almost shout our response we know it so well. OR, we think we know until that question marches right up to our beloved church and paints itself on our hallowed walls. The folks at Grace Episcopal thought they knew.
They debated sending a politely worded letter about God’s grace to the local newspaper, until they agreed that the chances that the hurting individual would read it were very slim. They debated painting over the words to hide the vandalism and to treat it as just some kids being obnoxious, until they agreed that chances were the pain was real, and the question, however ill-posed, was serious. They considered a lot of options and finally agreed that such a boldly asked question required a bold reply – they would meet the vandal where he or she was. They decided on a compassionate response. Now, next to the blue lettered question there is a green lettered reply. Spray painted down the rest of the outer wall of the nave are the words “God loves you with no exceptions!”
Yes, the God of our story heals the blind, feeds the hungry, and proclaims release to the captive. But, before all this, God has compassion. God relentlessly seeks out the suffering and those in need, and will be found there always and ever until every tear has been dried and every pain relieved. And, as the hands and feet of a compassionate God, that is where we ought to be found.
As the rector of Grace Episcopal said in the wake of his parish’s response – their goal was not to treat the vandalism as something awful that needed fixing, but as an opportunity to minister to someone in pain.
He said, “Hopefully this is the beginning of something and the blossoming of a new understanding in the community of us all being connected and God being right in the middle of all of us.”
God has compassion!