St. Blase, 13th c. stained glass, Louvre
A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 5, 2012. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-12, 21c, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 , and Mark 1:29-39.
On Friday, we added our prayers to the prayers of the ages by commemorating St. Blase, a fourth century bishop and physician in Sebastea, a part of present day Turkey. As a doctor, Blase was known to have a particular gift of healing when it came to objects stuck in the throat, such as a chicken bone fish bone. It’s for this reason that on February 3, throats are sometimes blessed (though for me, for some reason I always seem to have a scratchy throat around February 3—maybe St. Blase is urging me to offer the blessing of throats here, on his special day.)
When we think about healing, we approach complicated territory. So many things come together when one feels healing—medicine, general condition of the body, the state of the soul, the community, the general condition of one’s surroundings, one’s emotional condition (whether one is worried, or anxious, or free of such burdens). And then there is God—God stepping into our world in some way, making a miracle, and doing the unexpected, unearned, unmerited, unpredictable thing.
The Gospel we have just heard comes at a good time, as this is a first Sunday of the month, a day when we offer prayers for healing, with the laying on of hands, and anointing with Holy Oil. When we offer such prayers for healing– whether it is a lay minister or someone who is ordained, whether we anoint with oil, or offer the simplest prayers possible– what are doing is BEING the church at its most basic, most fundamental, and most essential.
What we do does not replace a medical doctor. It doesn’t make up for eating a balanced diet, getting some exercise and generally trying to live a good life. We do not deal in superstition and we don’t offer magic. What we offer is sacramental—a blessed combination of prayer and touch and love. This is what the church of Jesus Christ offers when it offers healing: it offers prayer, touch and love.
In today’s Gospel, Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is healed by Jesus. He takes her by the hand, lifts her up and the fever leaves her. Later that same day, people bring to Jesus those who are sick and those who have demons. The sick and the possessed were not allowed in the synagogue or the temple. These were people who had run out of options. They didn’t have anywhere else to turn, and so they turned to Jesus. And he healed them. Jesus then continues to heal throughout Galilee, in the towns and in the synagogues. Praying, touching and loving.
Jesus healed people from sickness and from demons. But he also healed them from and with their surroundings. He healed public reaction to those who were feared because they were sick, feared because they were different, feared because society had labeled them “unclean.” I wonder if we ever need that kind of healing, when we encounter another who is sick? How do we respond to the sick? What do we say to someone who is newly diagnosed? What do we say when someone’s treatments are not going well?
What do we say to the friend diagnosed with breast cancer or whose results at a clinic come back positive? So often, if we’re not careful, unconsciously we can begin to pull back, and to move away ever so slightly. We might justify our distance by saying that we don’t want to say anything stupid, or we think our friend might just need a little space.
But the way of healing (for Jesus and for us) is to move forward. Jesus always moves toward people—into their neighborhoods, into their homes, into their lives with prayer, touch and love.
Prayer is the first part, and it may seem like the easy part, but it’s the foundation, and we’ll lose our nerve to go any further if we are grounded in prayer. When I pray for someone to get better or to be healed, I try really hard to be honest with God. I know that part about “praying that God’s will would be done above all,” but I’m honest when I pray for someone and I ask God to make the person better, to take away the sickness, to make the person strong again. One way I pray for another’s healing is simply to picture the person in the fullness of health—vibrant, happy, at ease. That image of the person becomes my prayer as I hold that image in my mind for a minute or two and then imagine the person being that healthy and happy person in the presence of God.
We offer prayer as a part of healing, but we also offer touch. The touch part of healing has to do with proximity. Mindful that we live in a complicated age, I’m not for a moment suggesting that we smother one another in hugs and holds. Touch can be as exclusive as it can be inclusive. But there are many, many ways of showing physical presence while allowing for personal space. Closeness has as much to do with an open posture, with eye contact, with fewer words and with more deeply hearing ears.
We pray, we touch, and with the two, if we’re about healing, then we offer love. Love can be accepting and warm and soothing. And sometimes it just needs to be present in calm, quiet ways. But sometimes love is louder and tougher and more direct. Soft love for an addict is called enabling. Love always, always, always has to do with the truth.
Especially as it includes truth-telling, healing not only happens with individuals, but it also happens with institutions. If telling the truth is an important aspect of personal healing, it’s even more important when it comes to corporate healing. Volkswagen is one example.
Some years ago, Volkswagen had reached a plateau—financially, but even more perplexing, it was stuck creatively. Historians and archivists were consulted to look at the company’s history. It was Hitler’s order in 1933 to build a people’s car, and the bug was to be that car. In 1991, Volkswagen installed a memorial in one of its factories to the workers who had suffered through the 1940s. In 1992, the Volkswagen CEO commissioned a book to be written that would try to come to terms with VW’s Nazi past. Along with other management improvements, VW began to open up to a new spirit. In some ways the company experienced healing and new life.
In 2009, Virginia Seminary published a book of essays calledNo Turning Back: the Black Presence at Virginia Theological Seminary which also seeks to tell the truth in love, especially concerning the seminary’s cooperation from slavery and its role in racial segregation. And healing has begun.
Healing happens in institutions and in families, and this should be no surprise. Jesus did not only heal individuals. He also cast out demons from the synagogues and the towns. Almost every conversation he had with the Pharisees and Sadducees—the religious professionals of his day—he spoke a painful and judging truth to them. With institutions as well as individuals, we can be a part of God’s healing, by praying, by remaining connected, and by speaking the truth in love.
But healing almost always leaves us with questions. A few years ago, there was a wonderful movie called “Leap of Faith” that beautifully presents some of the questions around healing. It starred Steve Martin as a traveling faith healer named Jonas Nightingale. Jonas and his crew roll from town to town, almost like a travelling circus. With cameras that watch the crowed, with recording devices and old tricks, they manufacture and manipulate situations that appear to be acts of spontaneous healing, and then they count the money while it rolls in.
For the most part, the act gives people a good show. Jonas and his crew are careful to keep the real sick people at the back of the room, so that only the ones they’ve planted will appear to be healed and things won’t get messy.
The act goes well enough until the group is traveling between towns and gets stuck in Rustwater, Kansas. The town is aptly named because it’s undergoing a draught. Crops are failing. People are on hard times. And so the people are eager for miracles and attend the revival offered by Jonas.
But then, just as the faith-healer’s assistant is beginning to question her own involvement in the operation, a teenager who was hurt in a car accident and can’t walk without crutches and braces comes forward in the revival and asks to be healed. Jonas ignores him and ends the show. But the crowd is chanting, “one more, one more.” Reluctantly, and fearfully, Jonas goes back out and tries his theatrical best to invoke some kind of power around the teenager named Boyd. Boyd struggles to make his way toward a crucifix that is hanging, and as the movie music builds and the congregation gasps and Jonas himself isn’t sure what will happen next, Boyd’s one crutch falls away and he’s still standing. Eventually, the other falls away and he’s able to walk a bit. Jonas doesn’t know what to do with this. His character doesn’t immediately believe, but he knows that his own bluff has been called. Later, as he gets a ride out of town, a thunderstorm hits, with rain falling and blessing and answering the prayers of all the faithful.
While the story is fictitious and is embellished with all that Hollywood can throw in, it raises some good questions. How are healing and prayer connected? Does one’s moral character affect healing in any way? Does the faith of the individual matter as much as the faith of the community?
These are questions we live out as we continue to pray, to touch and accept holy touch, to love and to be loved. Jesus cast out demons and healed people with prayer and touch and love.
With the help of St. Blase and all the saints, may we be healed through Jesus the Great Physician, and may we offer this healing to the world.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.