Lions and Tigers and Schizophrenia, Oh My!
Colossians 3: 12-17
Earlier this month, I caught just a bit of a tv special while I was flipping through channels one night. As part of a new promotion, NBC has begun airing live theatrical performances of classic musicals. Following Peter Pan and The Sound of Music, The Wiz was viewed by millions and received a good amount of praise from viewers and critics alike. As for me, I don’t dislike musicals and watched it for a little bit – I’d give the few scenes I saw pretty high marks. For anyone unfamiliar, The Wiz is a re-imaging of the Broadway adaptation of the L. Frank Baum novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with a focus on Black American pop culture and musical influence. While it maintains the same basic plot as the traditionally-more-popular movie version with Judy Garland, The Wiz most importantly features the same ending as the book. After surviving a tornado, battling the wicked witch, fighting off flying monkeys, meeting the Cowardly Lion, the Heartless Tin Man, and the Brainless Scarecrow, and ultimately exposing the supposedly powerful wizard as a fraud, Dorothy finds that she is able to return home with just the clicking of her heels. Once she finds herself back in Kansas, it is revealed that the land of Oz was nothing but a technicolor dream.
Most of us are likely familiar with this story either through the book, the recent theatrical performance, the 1978 Michael Jackson/Diana Ross re-imagining, or the 1939 Judy Garland movie. It raises up within us the reminder that often what we fear we lack is in fact inside us all along. If only he would have known how to look at himself, the Tin Man would have seen that he was caring and compassionate all along – he didn’t need to ask for a heart! And the Lion was brave in the face of danger, he just didn’t recognize his own personal traits. Even Dorothy, even though she wakes up in Kansas without actually having experienced any of her fantastic journey, is a changed woman. Take what you will from the Wizard of Oz – be it an allegorical condemnation of the gold standard, the need for media figures that look like your particular embodiment, or the recognition of how certain music can make us feel all warm and gooey inside. But sometimes I look at this story and think, “man, it’s like the end of the story doesn’t matter at all! People, why are we still so obsessed with this – none of that even happened! If Dorothy ultimately has to stay in Kansas, of all places, what’s the point?”
Perhaps a better example comes from the outrage fans felt when the 1980’s, 13-emmy award-winning show St. Elsewhere was ended on the reveal that none of the episodes had actually happened, but had been imagined by the child of one of the doctors. Despite the gritty medical drama’s 6 seasons, the finale wiped away every bit of character development and intricate relationship with the pronouncement that all of the episodes had taken place in a child’s head. Once again, we’re left with the question of whether all of the hours of viewing had even mattered to us, since they clearly didn’t the the characters we watched.
It may be a strange connection, but I believe that questions like these expose bigger truths in our lives, especially when we look at Scripture. What I hope to illustrate in this sermon is that it’s not the final outcome that has engaged so many of us for so long when it comes to important stories. Rather, it’s the way in which they are told. It’s the feelings you get when you witness the entire arc of the journey. We care about these relationships not for the gooey promise of a “happily ever after,” but for the realistic difficulty and subsequent joy of facing down life’s twists and turns. If it was just about the ending, The Wiz wouldn’t still be popular 115 years after the book was published, St. Elsewhere would be completely forgotten instead of remembered for it’s ending, and even the famed lovebirds Romeo and Juliet would just be two unfortunate obituaries. These stories, like any other, are not about the outcomes or the bottom line. No, what captures the imagination is the story itself.
This is why today, when we finally complete our story of waiting, when we finally find the conclusion to Advent with the coming of Christ, we cannot simply view the outcome as the only important product. Today, our Scripture reminds us of the life we are called into living. We are given guidance – now that Christ has come, here is how we respond. But just like Dorothy, or anyone who watched St. Elsewhere, this is not focused on the end of the journey. Our text from Colossians is not merely a list of behaviors we must adopt in order to truly be Christian. Rather, this call to life is a work in progress. It is a call to action that operates moment by moment, not focusing on the conclusion but on the here and now. Colossians does not remind us what life must look like now that Jesus has come, but teaches us what true worship of the Christ-child is – a life spent bearing with one another, forgiving one another, letting peace rule, teaching and admonishing in wisdom, letting the word of Christ dwell in us, and doing and speaking all in the name of our God. These are not endpoints, but arcs along which we must constantly travel.
The Sunday after Christmas might be best described as “Now What? Sunday,” because after 4 weeks of waiting for a child to be born, we are all of the sudden confronted with the realization that we are expected to care for the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, the marginalized, just as we would care for a newborn baby. But rarely are we given the tools to connect our Advent waiting and our call to serve and love our neighbors. Today, as we reflect on the idea that the end of the story – the birth of Jesus – is not the endpoint, we are asked to live into the stories of others, rather than to wrap them up nicely with a neat little conclusion.
And so today, I want to speak openly about the concept of mental illness. Or any illness. Or a disability. Or a loss in a family. Or really, anything. Because really, the way that we are called to respond is the same. We are not called to look to the endpoint, to see a particular outcome and to work hard to ensure that it happens. If that is our expectation of mental illness, we will find it difficult to give the situation over to God if the person in question only gets worse, not better. If our expectations is that a loss will heal quickly, or a sickness be overcome, we may find ourselves placing too much on what we think are the endpoints. We are instead asked to participate in a communal exercise – to journey with those who are hurting, or marginalized, or left out, or forgotten, or lacking in hope, or lashing out because they are broken. We journey with those developing schizophrenia, or Alzheimers, or depression, or PTSD. In fact, on the east side, our denomination helps run a home for people with mental illnesses – not because our goal is to “make them better” or heal them, but because we are called to journey with them. None of the commands in Colossians stand as individual reminders or personal goals we might make as New Year’s resolutions. No, these are told to a community, for the good of a community, to remind them – and us – that we follow Christ as a community.
Now, this is not to say that we don’t have any individual responsibility. A common theme throughout the Bible is that as a community, we form the very Body of Christ. And not all parts of the body are exactly the same – they each are responsible to the others for living into their intended purpose. A wrist is not serving the hand once a month, and a hand doesn’t work when separated from a wrist, but rather they work in construct. A knee doesn’t choose to bend whenever it feels like it, it moves naturally along with the rest of the body whenever they need to walk or sit. Bodies do not choose which organs can work in any given day – they all must be at work constantly for the body to be healthy. It does not matter that at the end of our lives, the parts of the body will begin to fracture and cease to function. It does not matter that eventually, no matter how healthy we are, our hearts will forget how to beat. It does not matter that our strength will leave us, our eyes will fail, our bodies break; Christ has come to give us hope – what matters is not our death, but our life!
Today, on what I’m going to starting formally dubbing, “Now What? Sunday,” I ask all of us gathered here today to earnestly pray about what it is we are going to live into over this year. Will we put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience? Will we seek wisdom? Will we admonish one another with love? Can we bear with one another, even in the midst of mental health crises, disability, loss, and lingering pain? Will we forgive each other? Can we forget our endpoints and focus on the moment by moment choice to live into the freedom of God?
This is how we are called to respond to the coming of Christ. But this is not a pie-in-the-sky theological stance. This is an instance of Scripture telling us what is healthy for those in our community that suffer. When we think about those in Austin with mental illnesses, those who suffer anxiety or depression, those who have delusions or paranoia, or have dementia or schizophrenia, can we find our daily call to bear with them? To treat them with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience? Can we forsake our dreams of seeing them healed as we define it in order to more authentically live with them here and now? Can we appreciate the journey for what it is? When we engage with someone with a mental illness, we are often being cast in the role of Dorothy – it does not matter whether our endpoint looks remarkably different than how we started. What matters is whether we responded to the journey. What matters is whether we allowed God to move in our lives. What matters is whether we recognized the coming of Christ, as celebrated accordingly.
Often, our goal with service is to make everything alright. We don’t want those who have suffered the loss of a loved one to continue feeling bad, so we want to fix them. We don’t want a person with a disability to feel broken compared to us, so we avoid them. We don’t want the hurting person or marginalized person to feel any sort of dark or negative feelings, so we do what we can to change them. We complain that the poor won’t take the right jobs, we worry when sadness lasts for longer than we feel is socially acceptable, we can’t engage with those whose problems are too deep-rooted because we have no solutions to offer. But Paul reminds the Church of Colossae that we don’t need to have the solutions. We are called to bear with one another, no matter the issue. We are called to think about what gifts we do have, and to bring those along with our daily presence to the hurt, the broken, the proud, the sad, the schizophrenic, the overly-educated, the over-joyed, the anxious, the depressed, the disabled, the ignorant, the meek, the hard-to-talk-to, the homeless, the hopeless, and the whole Body of Christ.
If today is “What Now? Sunday,” I suggest that we start to think of it as the most important question in the life of the Church. Christ is here! what now? Christ is born! what do we do? Christ lives! how do I respond? Today, let us let Colossians teach us that we need not focus on the outcome. Today, let us answer our question with a daily commitment to illustrating the peace of Christ to those in need. Today, let us do all things, whether in word or deed, in the name of the Lord of lords, the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace! And let us remember that we are not called to focus on the end, but on the now! Amen.