July 8, 2013, 2:01 PM
With Healing in Our Hands
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
This year the book and potluck group read one of my favorite books about what it means to be a Christian. The book is Gilead, a novel by Marilynne Robinson, ostensibly about an ailing elderly preacher who is writing his memoir for his young son who will have to grow up without his father. I’m going to spoil that book for you today. So if you think you might ever want to read it without knowing the ending, put your fingers in your ears, or go get coffee now.
I was introduced to the book because it is part of the curriculum for the class on ministry that I teach at The School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University. The old preacher writes about what ministry has been like for him and students make note of his observations. At the heart of the story is the relationship between the Congregationalist preacher, Rev. John Ames, and his best friend’s wayward son, Jack, who has returned to the town of Gilead to visit his father, who is also an elderly ailing pastor at the Presbyterian church in Gilead. John Ames is suspicious of Jack’s intentions and much of the story centers on John Ames’ conflicting desires to somehow redeem Jack and also protect his wife and son from Jack’s charms. Throughout the story, Jack tries to have serious conversations with Rev. Ames, but never seems to get at the heart of his real questions. At the end of novel Jack reveals that he is married and has a son, but that he cannot live with his family because he, a white man, has married a black woman. It is 1956, and her family in the south will not accept him. He had hoped that they might find a home together in Gilead, Iowa, a town that was built as a stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. Jack is leaving Gilead having found no reason to sustain his hope when Rev. Ames finally, after years of wanting to, blesses Jack as he boards a bus out of town. The preacher is finally at peace having seen Jack’s heartache and been able to offer his blessing.
My classes spend a good deal of their discussion in class finding comfort in John Ames’ ability to forgive Jack for the pain he caused his family as a mischievous child and as a wayward young adult. I ask the class about the meaning of the title, Gilead. It brings to mind the words of the spiritual, “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.” So I ask them, did Jack get what he needed from the preacher or from the town? He engaged in several theological conversations with John Ames and received his blessing, but did he get what he wanted or needed? I can’t tell you how hard it is to get to the answer to that question: Jack needed a place to live where his bi-racial family could be accepted. Did he get what he needed to be whole? No, neither from the preacher nor the town. The bottom line for ministry is that it must meet people’s real needs. A blessing may have made John Ames feel good, but ministry, real ministry, was not offered. It is interesting that the author of the book is, herself, a Congregational minister. I think the book is written for the Church which has forgotten that it has healing in its hands.
In the gospel lesson this morning, Jesus sends 70 (or 72 depending on your translation) disciples out into towns and villages ahead of him. That’s a group about the size of our congregation on any given Sunday. He breaks them into pairs and sends them out. Instead of giving them a packet of resources and ample provisions, he tells them to pack light and be good guests. Jesus instructs his followers to offer peace and receive hospitality—in other words, to accept the people they encounter just as they are. Their only resource will be their presence and the healing that is in their hands. If they are not welcomed, they are to move on to someone who will welcome them.
I can just imagine the conversation on the road, “I heard Jesus say something about curing the sick. Do you know how to do that?” “Not me, I was hoping you knew how.”
So let’s talk about the healing in our hands. It starts with your ability to listen and to really hear what someone else is saying. Truly effective listening requires a quiet mind, a mind that is not judging, categorizing, or preparing a response. It is simply quiet and receptive. We create the space in which the other person can hear themselves think out loud and in doing so, come to their own answers. If a need is recognized and named, and it is within our power, we can offer to lend a hand. We bring our unique gifts which may not seem very powerful and we receive the gift of the other. It may be making a cup of tea or baking a loaf of bread. It may be fixing a screen door or buying a few gallons of gas. It could be checking in from time to time to listen again, or mowing a lawn. It might be respite care for a few hours.
It may be that someone’s story will call you to committing your heart and hands to mending tears in the fabric of our society by working for affordable housing and access to adequate food and health care. You might lend your voice or resources as a public witness for immigration reform or civil rights. You might give your resources toward the eradication of preventable diseases or population control.
We actually do have healing in our hands. Our touch in a hug or pat on the back offers healing in ways we may never know. Our deep listening allows the Spirit to work healing that is beyond our understanding. Our words of forgiveness restore relationships. Our small acts of kindness demonstrate acceptance and love. Our work for justice reveals God’s love for every person.
But if what we do here every week does not meet someone’s real needs—or lead to meeting people’s real needs—our words of blessing mean little and we have lost our purpose. We are called by God to receive the blessing of knowing that we are loved and accepted so that we can be sent with healing in our hands.
Brothers and sisters, we are not called by Jesus to be the gathered and the cloistered. The disciples of Jesus are sent ahead to prepare the way where Jesus himself intends to go and we are sent with healing in our hands. Sent to speak peace, to recognize our relationship as children of God in table fellowship, to touch the vulnerable, and to stand against evil. It won’t be easy. Remember Jesus said it was like sending sheep among wolves, so be wise with your eyes open. Just know that you already have everything you need and go!