Proper 16 (August 21-27)
Texts: Luke 13:10-17;
Heb. 12:18-29; Isa. 58:9b-14
HEALING PEOPLE AS A SIGN OF HEALING THE WORLD
Is it possible to receive 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 news better than that, right?! Perhaps something like M.S. is what had the woman in today’s Gospel Reading 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 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 had 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 a series of twelve oil paintings on the life of Jesus — paintings he 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?
Actually, I think our answer can be, “Yes! There is healing even better.” Why? Because God’s healing of individuals is part of an even bigger project of healing the entire Creation. That’s the promise in the New Testament in the aftermath of Jesus’ Resurrection. His rising to new life is the “first fruits” of God’s power of healing and life becoming “all in all” throughout Creation. The healing we experience in our lives now is a sign of what’s to come. What’s more, 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 had a good colleague and friend in Wisconsin, Pastor Walter. Shortly after we arrived there in 1994, he was diagnosed with M.S. as a fairly young man, about 40 years-old. He suffered with it for about 18 years before it finally took his life. But he had a wise saying that I’ll always remember: “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 you and me to be a part of it. Pastor Walter did not experience a cure for his M. S. in his lifetime. But he did enjoy the healing effects of being part of God’s healing in the world. He modeled a courageous discipleship of Jesus that never quit. He continued to the very end, as best he could, to work towards all kinds of healing in himself and others — spiritual, bodily, and social. That included continuing to work for the healing of justice in God’s world.
Pastor Walter’s courageous life — and so many others we may know who continue to battle the odds against serious diseases — testifies to this: that God’s promise is for an ultimate cure is underway. The Resurrection of Jesus is the down-payment for a time when all suffering and death will cease. The promise of the prophets, and St. Paul, and Jesus is that God’s love wins. The cure against sin and death will someday be complete. But it also testifies to this: until that day of an ultimate cure there is healing going on. And you and I are called to be 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 took place on the Sabbath. All cultural taboos! Or we might consider these as not just cultural taboos, but as cultural sins. They are precisely the things we’ve talked about this summer — namely, unjust laws, rules, and attitudes perpetuated in a culture. These taboos got in the way of healing, and Jesus, by healing this woman, was challenging their system of healing.
So in today’s Gospel we’re seeing a beginning to heal the sin in the healing system itself. It’s not just a matter of individual healing. It’s part of a bigger healing God is undertaking in the world — healing the cultural sins that get in the way of healing. I’m not at all trying to diminish the importance of healing individuals, but to understand that the more likely success of our healing as individuals happens in a society like ours that encourages and facilitates it! The two — healing individuals and healing health systems — are intimately related. Think about it. When I’m sick, or if my wife or children are sick, our healing is the most important thing in the world. That’s only natural! You and I have that in common with all peoples of every time and place. What we don’t have in common is the same expectation for success in healing. You and I are blessed to live in a time and place where our health system has dramatically increased our chances of being healed when we are sick.
And I want to propose that what we see Jesus doing in today’s Gospel Reading is bringing healing not only to a woman sick 18 years but also to a ‘sick’ health system that decreased her chances of getting well. 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, the sick, were outsiders. If your illness didn’t have you bent over, then the oppression of how you were treated as a sick person 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 sin of our human institutions. I’m skipping over many of the steps of 2000 years of evolution into the science of healing we enjoy today, but I think I can show that the process was greatly shaped by the way Jesus not only healed people but challenged the way our cultures thought about illness and healing. He modeled a compassionate care that eventually looked for real causes instead of blaming someone for being unlawful, for being a sinner.1 It’s not a coincidence that the vast majority of our modern hospitals were started by disciples of Jesus. In Saginaw, the hospitals are St. Mary’s, and the Covenant Hospitals began as St. Luke’s.
Look how far we’ve come from Jesus’ time: much of the sin in the ancient institutions of healing has already been healed! 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. And when you stop blaming the victim of illness, it opens the door to finding what’s really ailing them.
I’m not saying our healing institutions are completely transformed. 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 still include working together to heal the politics of our health care system, too?
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. I attended a housing ministry conference recently, where the presenter spoke on the question ‘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. One of the tolls of undertreated mental illness in our country have been so many of the horrific mass shooting tragedies, from Sandy Hook Elementary School to the Orlando gay bar. Does discipleship of Jesus include advocating for more resources to find effective treatment for those who are bent over from mental illness?
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. 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 Faith Lutheran,
Saginaw, MI, August 21-22, 2016
1. René Girard has suggested how we might see this broad working of the Spirit in Ch. 15 of The Scapegoat, “History and the Paraclete,” where he succinctly states,
The scientific spirit cannot come first. It presupposes the renunciation of a former preference for the magical causality of persecution so well defined by the ethnologists. Instead of natural, distant, and inaccessible causes, humanity has always preferred causes that are significant from a social perspective and permit of corrective intervention — victims. In order to lead men to the patient exploration of natural causes, men must first be turned away from their victims. This can only be done by showing them that from now on persecutors “hate without cause” and without any appreciable result. In order to achieve this miracle, not only among certain exceptional individuals as in Greece, but for entire populations, there is need of the extraordinary combination of intellectual, moral, and religious factors found in the Gospel text.
The invention of science is not the reason that there are no longer witch-hunts, but the fact that there are no longer witch-hunts is the reason that science has been invented. The scientific spirit, like the spirit of enterprise in an economy, is a by-product of the profound action of the Gospel text. (204-5)