January 14, 2007: Practicing Healing

Matthew 9:18-26

A Girl Restored to Life and a Woman Healed

While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, ‘My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.’ And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.’ Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’ And instantly the woman was made well. When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute-players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, ‘Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. And the report of this spread throughout that district. (NRSV)

What do you think of when you think of healing? Do you think of doctors and nurses? Their vocation is certainly about healing. In medical centers in our neighborhood and throughout the world, trained professionals diagnose sicknesses, treat injuries, research diseases, and work to prevent the onset of pain and illness. Whether in a state-of-the-art cardiac unit or a traveling free clinic, medical workers routinely participate in the physical healing of men, women, and children.

So what do you think of when you think of Christian healing? Does your mind automatically switch channels to the worst of what religious broadcasting has to offer? There are a lot of hucksters out there, dangling the promise of miraculous cures to those who would just summon the faith to buy them. There is never a lack of suffering in this world, and with the right balance of illusion and charisma, con artists can make big bucks by exploiting it.

There is a deep need for and interest in healing. You might even say that healing is one of the most relevant topics of the day. The airwaves are constantly full of talk about how to improve healthcare. The cost of insurance and prescription drugs is a hot-button issue. The AIDS pandemic in Africa is a medical and moral emergency. Our home, the earth, is bruised from centuries of misuse. And without a doubt, each and every one of us has longed for healing, for ourselves and for our families, our friends, and our neighbors—the ones that are right next door, and the ones that are on the other side of the world. John Koenig writes that "Though we sometimes try to deny it, illness, injury, and psychological distress dog virtually every step of our daily walk through life. They grip us and the people we love with pain, touching every thought and motion by their presence, often briefly but sometimes for years on end" (Practicing Our Faith, 149). We are hungry for healing.

Our culture is mostly comfortable defining healing as the work that happens in the operating room and the doctor's office. A healthy understanding of healing will include the gift of medical treatment. But for Christians, healing is also more than pills and procedures.

I want to talk about healing today— healing as it is practiced in our Christian tradition. But before we go any further, we have to recognize that healing as a Christian practice needs to be healed. I want to change the channel on the faith healers that do more harm than good to the hopeful believers who seek their services, pull the plug on the so-called healing that is all spectacle and corruption. Today we celebrate and explore the practice of healing that is sacred and compassionate and real.

At the heart of Christian healing is this simple truth: God wants us to be whole. God wants us to be restored, redeemed, reborn into the fullness of who He created us to be. God wants this for each of us, and God wants this for all of us, for all of Creation. We know this for the same reason we know who God is: because his Son, Jesus Christ, revealed it through his life and ministry.

Jesus was a preacher, a teacher, and a healer. Jesus challenged demons to flee and commanded wounds to close. He empowered the eyes of blind men to open and the skin of lepers to be restored. Jesus had a God-given authority to heal through words and touch, and for a very important reason. Though Jesus' reputation as a healer was like a magnet for the suffering people of Galilee, he resisted that easy fame.

Jesus healed for the same reason he shared parables with the people: he was showing them the nature of God's gracious Kingdom. Just as the Kingdom of Heaven is like the smallest seed that grows into the largest tree, so is the Kingdom of Heaven like a woman who touched the hem of Jesus' garment.

Jesus healed the woman. Or rather, her faith healed her. The blood that had flowed from her body for twelve years slowed and stopped, freeing her from a life of physical and social anemia. For the woman's affliction affected much more than her body. Her Jewish culture had strict guidelines for cleanliness. A bleeding woman was considered unclean. She could not participate in the religious life of her community. What's more, anyone who came into contact with her would also be considered ritualistically unclean.

She had been living in the margins for twelve years. Barred from religious expression, denied any human touch, and always on the brink of death, the chronic hemorrhage had literally drained the life of out of the woman. And then she was caught in a radical act: her hand reached out, clutching the edge of Jesus' cloak. Her bold move posed a terrible threat to Jesus. Because he had been touched by an untouchable, the very Son of God could be labeled unclean. But the power of the Holy Spirit flowed from him to her, and in the twinkling of an eye, the woman's life was saved. Jesus made her whole, restoring her body as well as her place within her community.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman who touched the hem of Jesus' garment.

When theologians talk about the Kingdom of God, they often lament that it is "already but not yet." Through his life and ministry, Jesus planted seeds of God's reign and expected his followers to nurture those seeds. We see glimpses of the Kingdom of God in the scriptures, as Jesus moved among the people. We see glimpses of the Kingdom of God when faithful Disciples embody the compassionate wisdom of Christ. And we see glimpses of the Kingdom when we discern God's work in the world. Already, but not yet.

The promise of the gospels, the promise of this text witnessing to not one but two miraculous healings, is that we will be healed: body, mind, and spirit. The human community will be made whole. Suffering will cease, and sins will be wiped away. Creation will be restored to a realm of justice and beauty. This is the great work that God began through the incarnation of his Son, Christ Jesus. And in the fullness of time, this vision of shalom will be a reality.

As Christian people endeavoring to live a way of life shaped by our Savior, we have work to do. We are called to participate in the unfolding of God's great plan. We are called to be healers, even as we are still wounded by loss and pain ourselves.

The practice of Christian healing is not about magic. Not every disease can be cured. Not every life can be preserved. The kind of healing revealed by Jesus is bigger than life, and claims victory over death.

Healing isn't about cultivating false hope. One of the most humble healers I've ever encountered is a pediatrician at a local hospital whose specialty is hospice care for children. Every young patient he treats has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and his job is to find ways to alleviate their physical pain.

It is grueling work that could easily scour away all hope. Yet even in a context where physical cures are out of the question, healing happens. Healing happens when a devastated mother witnesses her child's pain diminish long enough for him to enjoy a visit with his siblings.

Moments of healing take place every day, in ordinary and extraordinary ways. "When we embody God's healing presence to others through touch, concern, or liturgy, we take part in God's activity of healing the world" (quote from John Koenig: couldn't figure out how to acknowledge that without losing momentum). Sharing a plate of cookies with a grieving family. Listening to a stranger in crisis. Comforting a feverish grandchild. Praying for a friend fighting cancer. This is all holy work, healing work. And these healing ministries, woven with the power of the Holy Spirit, invite the Kingdom of Heaven to blossom in the soil of Creation.

When faced with the possibility of healing, the mourners gathered around the dead girl's house laughed. They laughed at Jesus. I can only think of one other time in the gospels when Jesus was so blatantly mocked—when he himself was on the edge of death, when his own body and spirit seemed a million miles from wholeness. And yet the wounds of the cross were healed. Jesus was made whole again, restored, resurrected into new life.

Our God is a lover of life. He will transform every tear of grief into a tear of joy. He will forge a new beginning out of every ending. The good news of Jesus Christ is that we will be redeemed, we will be saved, we will be healed. And so we must hope and pray and work for God’s gracious will to be done on earth as it is in the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

Thanks for starting to post these more regularly.

Your sermons help me because I can hear them without constantly having to translate them into language that I find acceptable.