A sermon preached at Evensong on December 4, 2011 celebrating the ministry and mission of the St. John Eye Hospital in East Jerusalem. The Evensong was sponsored by the Order of St. John of Jerusalem and held at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Georgetown. The scripture lessons were Numbers 21:1-9 and John 9:1-7.
A question rings out of our Gospel lesson: “Who sinned?” The disciples who ask Jesus this question evidently assume that disease is punishment for sin, and that “bad things” only happen to “bad people.” “Who sinned?” they ask. “Who is it? Who’s to blame?”
Jesus answers, “Neither sinned. This man was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.”
The disciples want an answer for the blindness. They want to blame someone, but notice what Jesus does. Jesus re-frames the situation so that no one is to blame. Instead, Jesus turns the situation outward so that the condition of blindness involves everyone. What was insular and isolating, Jesus opens to others. Like a wound that is given fresh air to heal, Jesus airs this matter: “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed.” Jesus says, WE must work the works of God who sent us. WE must work the works of God. We. While sickness may feel individual and lonely, healing happens through community.
We can see this in our first reading, as well, in this strange, old story read from the Book of Numbers. The people of Israel are impatient, restless, and whiny. They miss what was familiar back in Egypt—even though they had been enslaved, there had been a certain predictability about it all. And now there isn’t much food or water, and when there is, the quality is awful. And then things get worse.
There come these poisonous snakes. The snakes bite the people, and many of them die. And so the people pray to God, and ask God to forgive their murmuring, their whining and their lack of faith. God hears them, and then God gives them a symbol of healing.
God uses the very thing that has hurt them, and God turns that hurtful thing into a symbol of healing. This new, strange but powerful symbol is of a serpent raised up high on a pole in the midst of the people, when they look upon it, they are healed.
In this story there is at work a kind of symbolic vaccination, like in modern vaccinations, when a little part of a disease is put into us, healing comes from within. But it’s a powerful story of healing that happens right there among the people.
If we look closely, God is uses tremendous economy in working his will out. So often God uses what is at hand, drawing healing and help out of community. When the thousands were hungry, Jesus asked them to look within, find a few loaves and fishes, and from that, all were fed. In another story, a man who is paralyzed is lowered through the roof by his friends. The healing comes as much through the love of his friends as it does from the prayers of Jesus. Over and over again, scriptures show us places where people look to God for healing, and God invites people to look within themselves. It’s as though God says, “I’ve given you everything you need. You just need to be creative and faithful (and generous) in using it. Healing comes through community, and sometimes the medicine itself is of our own making.
In the past year, as people have visited the eye hospital and clinics in East Jerusalem and the other locations, healing has come through equipment and learning and money, but that healing is made possible by community, by the commitment and faithfulness of many in this room. As some have contacted their friends and neighbors who can affect policy, healing has come through community. As we have prayed for one another and with one another, often across several faiths, healing has come from the community God has created with us.
At one point, the religious leaders asked Jesus about the kingdom of God. People were looking for the kingdom all over the place. Then, as now, people look for the kingdom (being the place of ultimate healing and wholeness, the final Beth Shalom) in places – Jerusalem, Washington, a mountain retreat, a place a the beach—or in people—Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Billy Graham—or in technology or chemistry or science— but Jesus told them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ;There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” The kingdom of God is within you, and within me.
Healing comes through community. Healing for sight in East Jerusalem can come, in part, from us—from our prayers, from our visits, from our checkbooks, from our donation of time and resources, and from our leverage of relationships. God has, and will continue to heal through community. By the grace of God, and the design and plan of God, the medicine itself, is sometimes made from us.
May God bless the work and mission of the St. John Eye Hospital, its staff and patients, and its many friends around the world.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.