August 28, 2013, 1:18 PM
I love the healing stories in the Bible. The longer I’m in ministry, the more I see how our physical, mental, and spiritual health are intertwined. Our faith is encouraged or challenged—more often challenged—by illness, injury, or disability. Most of those of us over the age of 50 are dealing with at least one health issue. How we feel affects our faith, our theology, our image of God, and our image of ourselves. So when Jesus lifts the woman who has been bent over for 18 years, I find hope that my own physical challenges can be overcome.
And as I was trying to write this sermon, I found myself staring at my computer not knowing where to start or what to say. It was a familiar feeling—the same one I had as I began to write my dissertation which is about the church’s healing ministry. There is so much to say. It’s a complex topic that is so important to our real lives, but it’s also fraught with danger. There are the huge questions that we ask as we try to make sense of our suffering: Why me? What have I done to cause this? Whose sin is to blame? That’s an often repeated Biblical question—to which Jesus definitively answered, “No one.” If others are healed why aren’t I? If we pray for healing, why are some prayers seemingly answered and others are not? If our prayers lead to unrealistic expectations should we pray at all? Doctors and chaplains often encounter patients who refuse treatment because their church teaches that Jesus will heal them. We don’t want to do more harm than good.
These are all valid questions or concerns. The result is that we tend to relegate physical and mental healing to physicians and psychiatrists, and spiritual healing to priests and pastors. But human beings are not that neatly compartmentalized. And we often confuse healing with cure. A cure may happen or it may not and a person may still be healed, may still be made whole. I believe that the church has to embrace its healing ministry 1) because Jesus’s ministry included healing and he instructed his disciples to carry on that ministry and 2) because it a practical way that we love and care for one another.
I have a shelf full of books on healing. The book I come back to again and again is I Am the Lord Who Heals You: Reflections on Healing, Wholeness, and Restoration, a collection of sixteen sermons on healing compiled by G. Scott Morris, MD., published by Abingdon, the United Methodist publishing house. There are fifteen wonderful theological treatises in this book from theologians, pastors, a rabbi, professors, and one sermon that I would disagree with completely. The sermon that captured my attention this week is by the editor. Physician G. Scott Morris is also an ordained minister who has helped create a clinic for those who do not have insurance in Memphis. He writes passionately about the connection between bodies, mind, and spirit. He notes that Jesus is often moved with pity for people who are suffering and asks where the Church’s compassion is and how it is expressed. He chastises the Church for not talking about the bodies that house our minds and spirits. Dr. Morris tells the story of Annie who he treated in his clinic over a number of years. One day he noticed her black eye and asked how she got it. She admitted that her husband had gotten a little mad. He also abused drugs and became the doctor’s patient when he got HIV. Later Annie developed a lump in her breast and underwent treatment for cancer. She finally died as a result of the AIDS she no doubt got from her husband who also died of AIDS not long after her. Dr. Morris raises these questions for the Church:
What does it mean for us to have compassion? Although Annie’s story is a powerful witness to the work of the Church Health Center and the faith community, there are a number of serious problems.
Do you believe that I am the only one who knew that Robert was abusing Annie? Can you tell me that no one in the church even suspected? And if we think that spouse abuse is not going on in the church today then we are fooling ourselves.
Why is it that we can never say the word breast in church? Why didn’t Annie learn about breast self-exam and mammograms in her church? God has given us a precious gift of this body and we must learn to care for it, to cherish it, and to teach our children how to nurture it and protect it from disease and keep it strong if we want to be faithful disciples.
What can we learn from Jesus’ healing of the woman who had been bent over for 18 years? The first is that she was in the Temple on the Sabbath. We ought to be able to find comfort, support, strength, and, yes, healing in the worshiping community. Jesus noticed her. He noticed her pain and her suffering. He saw that she could not have seen his face. So in order to talk to her, he must have gotten down on one knee in order to look up into her face. He gently lifted her up. When he was criticized for healing on the Sabbath, he called her a daughter of Abraham, a beloved daughter of God. He spoke to her soul as well as to her body.
That is why we offer healing every week. Anyone who comes to worship should be able to find comfort, support, strength, and healing in the worshiping community. We work in tandem with the medical community in seeking wholeness for individuals and families. That means that we may need to find better ways to create access to medical care for some people. As Dr. Morris s suggests, we need to become better advocates for physical and mental health and put an end to the social stigmas we’ve placed on talking about our bodies. We need to see one another with compassion. We all stuggle with something. No matter what outcome we hope for, we pray for healing. Sometimes we find a solution or a cure, and sometimes our love and companionship on the journey is what brings healing. Sometimes God leads us to wholeness without a cure. Sometimes our illness or disability leads us to wholeness. No matter how we pray, we need to find a way for all people to be able to participate as fully as possible in the life of the church. I believe that when the Church lives into its healing ministry, God is present in each of our circumstances and kneels to look up into the pain of our lives and lifts us into wholeness.