Proper 16 (August 21-27)
Texts: Luke 13:10-17;
HEALING PEOPLE AS A SIGN OF HEALING THE WORLD
Is it possible to receive even better news than being healed from an affliction that had you bent over for 18 years? Let’s say you’ve suffered from M.S. for 18 years and you go into complete remission. It’s hard to imagine something better. Maybe something like M.S. had the woman in our Gospel bent over for 18 years. After Jesus lays hands on her for healing, she stands up straight and begins to praise God.
Have you ever witnessed such a miraculous healing? I am blessed to say that I have. My artist friend Harry Antis experienced a miraculous healing that extended his life for a good 15-20 years. A series of devastating heart attacks left him literally at death’s door. He was too weak to even lift himself out of bed. As Harry lay in his hospital room at the University of Michigan awaiting a heart transplant, a group of friends visited Harry and laid hands on him to pray for healing. Over the next few days, Harry’s color came back and his energy slowly returned! As his team of doctors marveled over his improvement, Harry was taken off the transplant list and instead underwent heart bypass surgery. Across the front of Harry’s three-inch think medical chart, someone had written in bold, black marker: UNEXPLAINED PHENOMENON.
A dozen or so years later, we attended an exhibit Harry hosted of his series of twelve oil paintings on the life of Jesus — paintings completed ONLY because of his miraculous healing. Before telling his story, he stood for a moment on the chancel and did a little dance of joy [doing dance and shouting, Hallelujah!]. I’ll never forget it — Harry standing up straight and praising God for unexpected healing. Is there anything better than being healed of physical suffering and affliction?
I think the answer is, “Yes!” God’s healing of individuals is part of an even bigger project of healing the entire Creation. And God thinks enough of you and me to call us to take part in that! God is healing the world and wants us to help.
I’ve mentioned recently my friend Pastor Walter who has suffered from M. S. — as it just so happens — for around 18 years. The wisdom he shares that sticks with me is this: “There may not always be a cure, but there is always healing.” Part of what that means to me is this larger picture of God bringing healing to the whole world and calling me to be a part of it. Pastor Walter may not, and probably will not, experience a cure for his M. S. in his lifetime. But he does enjoy the healing effects of being part of God’s healing in the world. He models discipleship of Jesus that works towards all kinds of healing in himself and others — spiritual, bodily, and social. He continues to work for the healing of justice in God’s world.
Here’s another twist on Pastor Walter’s wisdom: God’s promise is that there is an ultimate cure underway, a time when all suffering and death will cease. The promise of the prophets, and St. Paul, and Jesus is for a time when God’s love wins. The cure against sin and death will someday be complete. But until that day of an ultimate cure there is healing going on. And you and I are part of God’s love, bringing healing to more and more corners of God’s world.
Let’s look at today’s Gospel in the context of a wider healing. I think this woman is rejoicing and praising God over more than just her own bodily healing – Jesus healed a person rejected both by her gender and her affliction, and it was on the Sabbath. All cultural taboos! This is an example of what I mean when talking about repairing the crack in the container. Instead of focusing only on individual lives, we also need to look at the container: the cultures and institutions that shape and contain our lives.
In today’s Gospel we’re seeing a similar shift in the realm of healing. It’s not just a matter of individual healing. It’s part of a bigger healing God is undertaking in the world — healing the crack in the container. In all ancient cultures like the one Jesus lived in, being sick was seen as punishment from God. Society didn’t search for ways to heal sick people, but rather blamed them for their illness and ostracized them. Society made a clear distinction between “us” and “them.” They were outsiders. If your illness didn’t have you bent over, then the oppression of how you were treated had you bent over.
Jesus begins healing this woman by treating her as an equal, as a fellow child of Abraham. There’s no hint of gender inequality, or blame or shame. He breaks through his culture’s treatment of the sick and helps this woman stand up straight with dignity to praise a God of unconditional love. Jesus not only heals her body, but he heals her spiritual relationship with the true God. She rediscovers God through Jesus as someone who wants to heal her, not blame her or punish her.
Jesus’ way of healing not only healed an individual, but it also began healing the crack in the container of our human institutions. Look how far we’ve come from Jesus’ time: much of the crack in the container has already been repaired! We no longer believe that God uses illness to punish people for sinful behavior. So we don’t use illness as a justification for ostracizing them. They are simply in need of healing. If you’ve been looking for where the crack in the container is being repaired, our healing institutions are a prime example.
But that doesn’t mean our healing institutions are completely repaired. We still see the us-them effect in modern medicine along the lines of our society’s other divisions, such as economic and racial divides. Even as we try to find a way to achieve affordable health care for all who are in need, our political divide gets in the way. Does discipleship of Jesus include being part of healing the political divide as well?
And there is one area of our healing institutions that still bears some ancient stigma: our treatment of mental illness. In my lifetime we have moved from abandoning many mentally ill people in locked institutions to abandoning them on the street. At one of our Housing Matters meetings this spring, Rick Stravers of Open Doors Ministry gave a presentation on ‘Who are the homeless?’ One of the largest segments are those suffering from mental illness. But the statistic that stuck with me most was that 75-80% had suffered a sever trauma in their childhood. The largest segment of homeless people today suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Does discipleship of Jesus include advocating for more resources to find effective treatment for those who are bent over from mental illness?
One of the tolls of undertreated mental illness in our country have been terrible tragedies like Sandy Hook Elementary School last Christmas. We almost had another such tragedy this week in Decatur, GA, except for Antoinette Tuff — not just her heroism, but also her discipleship of Jesus. I’ve had trouble finding this latter aspect covered in the news, but Friday night I saw a more extended interview with her. As this young man threatened her life and the children in the school, she found herself thinking about things she had learned at church, things like, “push past the pain.” But, above all, she was thinking about how God had sent people into her path when she herself had been suicidal just the year before. Her pastor, her family and friends, her church had helped bring her back from what seemed like a hopeless situation to one of hope. She began to talk to this troubled young man out of the compassion that had been shown her, healed her. As one who had received healing, she became one that God used to bring healing to a potentially deadly and horrific event. Amazing!
Brother and Sisters, you and I are those who know the healing of a God who loves us unconditionally. We know the healing of a God who invites us to take part in sharing that healing love, like Antoinette Tuff, Pastor Walter, Ed Blahnik, and countless others. We are called to share hope for God’s ultimate cure of sin and suffering and death in this world. And in the meantime, even if there isn’t yet a cure, there is always healing. Let’s stand up straight and praise the God of healing! Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, August 24-25, 2013