What do you do when you’re confronted by a crazy person? You know the kind of people I’m talking about. They’re the ones who sit on a bench on East Broad Street, waiting for a bus that never comes, talking to themselves. They’re the people who act a little odd, or a lot odd, in bus stations or train stations. They’re sometimes the homeless among us, or they’re sometimes the relative whom we don’t invite to our Thanksgiving Dinner because their behavior is unpredictable and sometimes frightening.
They are different from us, and we feel that difference acutely. As a result, we tend to discount them. We think they live in some strange underworld that has nothing to do with us. We think they are the detritus of the world, worthless.
They don't contribute to society. They don't work, or pay taxes, or fix things or make things. They cannot do these things, of course, because they are crazy, or at least they seem crazy to us. We judge them, and say they are a drag on society, or probably addicts, or we are frightened of them, because their world seems entirely disconnected with our own.
And yet as Christians we understand rationally that they have value. We know that they are created by God, beloved by their creator just as we are...and yet when we encounter them, we still think of them as "less than."
In many ways, it is natural to view them that way. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone describe the paranoid schizophrenic who lives under a bridge as someone who contributes to the world. You wouldn’t hire her to mind your children. You wouldn’t want him to draw your blood at the doctor’s office. No, for that you want someone who seems safe and rational and competent, and crazy people are, in our eyes, none of the above.
But the crazy people in the world have one skill that is rare and beautiful, one that few of us share with them.
They are the watchers. They see things, not just the top layer of things that we all can observe, but a deeper level of observation. Their observations are not always trustworthy, but sometimes they surprise us, because crazy people see things through a different lens. Their different perspective gives them the capacity to see things that we miss.
Sometimes, too, they sit still better than us, and those who sit still to observe catch things that we so-called normal people miss, whether it is a robin plucking a fat worm out of the spring earth or a policeman heading toward them to roist them out of their usual seat in the park. They see things, in the world and in humanity, sometimes so clearly that it is almost painful to them, and even to us.
I'm reminded of a man who stood next to me one bright Tuesday noon in McPherson Square in Washington DC. We were both attending a service of Street Church, a noontime Eucharist in the park for the street people and the office workers, a simple celebration of the Lord's Supper for people who were hungry for many things, not the least of whch was the sandwich and juice that would be handed out after the service. That man standing next to me was a sojourner, a wanderer from who knows where. He smelled bad and was twitchy. His clothes were worn and his backpack looked like it had seen better days.
He mumbled to himself, words I couldn't decipher. And the moment came in the service when we were to exchange the Peace, and I had no idea what I would do… I had no idea what he would do. But I took a deep breath, despite the odor that now surrounded us because he had wet his pants, and said "God's peace, my brother." I braced myself for whatever would come next, afraid that he might want to hug me.
“God’s peace, my brother.” He half-turned to me and stopped mumbling. He looked at me, waited a moment, and smiled and said "I need it. You need it too."
This strange man, possessed by some demon, whether it was drugs or alcohol or mental illness, this man who had wet his pants a few minutes before but seemed oblivious to it, this man who was mumbling to whomever...he had looked at me in a moment of strange clarity and had seen something in himself and in me. And he got in one. "I need it. I need God's peace. You need God's peace, too."
How could he have known?
I was in the midst of seminary. I had no idea where I would land, worried about money, about exams, about my thesis, my children, whether this had all been some monstrous mistake...and then a crazy man reminded me that my worries were irrelevant. I needed God's peace, and God would give it to me.
When Jesus began his ministry, he went into the synagogue to teach.There is some question whether he ever wondered about who he was and what he was doing. Yes, when he was baptized in the Jordan he heard his heavenly father's voice pronouncing a benediction on him and his mission. But perhaps he too wondered how this would all play out, or if he was doing it right, or whether he was deluded or even a tad crazy himself.
And then a truly crazy person came up to him. There was no hesitation in this man possessed by demons - he just started shouting at Jesus - or the demons within him did - naming Jesus in a way that the disciples didn't even dare - calling him the "Holy One of God."
The one person who could see who Jesus really was was not one of the disciples.It wasn't one of the religious leaders in the synagogue. It wasn't Jesus' relatives.
No, it was a crazy person, a man possessed by demons. This crazy man saw Jesus more deeply than the others did, especially the religious people. He named him as the Son of God. It was as if he had a microscope with which he could analyze Jesus’ DNA. He got it in one.
He was the forerunner of what Orthodox Christianity identifies as “holy fools,” saints who act foolishly, seemingly mad, talking in riddles, sometimes homeless, sometimes wandering around naked, but who are said to be prophets of God.
Maybe it's only the crazy ones who have the time to look deeply. Maybe their broken hearts and minds help them see what we in our arrogance and busy-ness are blind to.
Maybe the lesson of this story from Mark's gospel isn't that Jesus worked miracles and tamed demons, or that people were amazed by his words and works. Maybe the lesson is simply this: pay attention. Maybe the crazy people, the holy fools, have it right, and we have it wrong. Maybe we need to relearn how to see beyond our own circumscribed understanding of the world, and humanity, and God. Look deeply. Let yourself be holy fools. Let yourself be crazy enough to see the Son of God in unexpected ways, in unexpected people, in unexpected places, and be blessed.