James 5:13-20 and Mark 9:38-50
The sermon today begins with some insights on healing. Quotes from public figures, poets, politicians, pastors, parents…
Everyone knows what hurting is like, though some people experience imaginably more suffering than others. And, depending on your perspective, you might say, alternatively, that those who are blessed,
or lucky or dedicated to the hard work of their own wholeness… they’re the ones that also get to know also some experience of healing.
We don’t all experience or understand suffering or healing the same, much less respond in the similar ways to, but let’s start with these insights:
“Hearts are breakable… And I think even when you heal, you’re never what you were before”. (Cassandra Clare, City of Fallen Angels)
‘“It has been said, ‘time heals all wounds.’ I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.” (Rose Kennedy)
Any one who says “God never gives people more than they can handle,” is refusing to see or admit that physical or emotional pain sometimes crushes, even destroys people. It’s worst when suffering with such destructive power was unnecessary or avoidable.
“As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation — either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force.” (Martin Luther King)
“Some people see scars, and it is wounding they remember. To me, (the scars) are proof of the fact that there is healing.” (Linda Hogan)
“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.” (Cormac McCarthy)
“It’s not forgetting that heals. It’s remembering.” (Amy Greene)
“Wounding and healing are not opposites. They’re part of the same thing: It is our wounds that enable us to be compassionate with the wounds of others. It is our limitations that make us kind to the limitations of other people. It is our loneliness that helps us to to find other people or to even know they’re alone with an illness. I think I have served people perfectly with parts of myself I used to be ashamed of. ”
“It’s harder to heal than it is to kill.” (Tamora Pierce)
“Sometimes we must yield control to others and accept our vulnerability so we can be healed.” (Kathy Magliato)
You might after the sermon, at home once it’s posted on line, you might go back and read those insights again. And think about the ways you have suffered, and also about the ways you have healed…
But, church, You know what I learned this week? Some people are uncomfortable with healing. Oh, I didn’t run into folks claiming that they preferred their physical or emotional brokenness, rather than its cessation and the possibility of healing and wholeness. No one said, “I prefer to be sick.” But truth be told, there’s folks… situations… cases… behaviors that force us to say. sometimes we do prefer our illnesses to their remedy…
But the discomfort I ran into over and over again wasn’t with healing per se; it was with a healing service at Old First. People’s reservations were varied.
And as is usually the case around here, I bet for everyone who for this or that reason dislikes our having a healing service, there are probably as many people who’ve been longing for such an opportunity, folks who can’t quite believe it’s happening.
What did I hear that was making people uncomfortable with a healing service?
~ Some people couldn’t quite articulate their discomfort. But they made it clear they wouldn’t be in church this Sunday. And they aren’t.
~ One person, I think, fears Old First looking like a Benny Hinn t.v. revival– with me bopping people on the head, and them falling out… with loud voices testifying, hurting people crying, maybe even speaking in tongues… with crutches thrown away, wheel chairs abandoned, and people who couldn’t walk dancing ecstatically.
~ One person said to me very quietly, “Pastor, I can’t be there. I’m afraid to have to face all the suffering, how much people I care about are going through.”
~ Another person seemed frightened others might recognize his suffering.
All these reactions reminded me of an experience I had long ago, when I was young in ministry. Millie was really sick. She’d been sick so long. Her HIV had progressed to AIDS back before today’s life-giving medications were available.
I loved Millie, and had followed her through many hospitals and illnesses. She and I both knew her body was getting weaker, that her life was coming to an end. She called me from Mt. Sinai Hospital one day, and said, “Michael, I know we don’t usually do this at the Church of the Living Hope, but could you bring oil and anoint me. Millie was raised Catholic, though she had spent almost all of her adulthood in and out of our congregation.
Church, I believe there’s a power and a purpose to each traditions’ customs and rituals. They fit together to sketch some greater whole. There are reasons that Protestants and Catholics and Jews and Buddhists
both do what we do, and what we don’t do.
But as a pastor, I also know that if the church can do something to help someone along life’s journey,
particularly a rough spot (especially because so many times there’s just nothing we can do but witness the suffering), it takes an awful lot to convince me it would be wrong.
Yes, I’ve planned weddings in a Congregational Church where Ava Maria was sung long and loud enough to make Congregationalists turn over in their graves.
I’ve done communion with wonder bread and jelly for the kids,
whole grain loaves for the healthy,
matzoh so Christians might see their Jewish relations,
pumpernickel so the bread was as dark as some folks’ skin ,
wafers because that’s what other churches do,
pita for the Middle Eastern authenticity,
rice crackers for those who need to be gluten free,
and Pepperidge Farm goldfish, but I’m not sure why.
In the Black church tradition, I’ve “opened the doors of the church” and invited people to new life in Christ with an altar call.
I’ve co-officiated at funerals with a pundit — the deceased was Christian, but his wife was Hindu — where we also made puja.
I’ll dedicated babies for families who believe in adult baptism. And later baptized those children when their families thought they were old enough to make their own commitment to follow Jesus.
I’ve even helped a Jewish family sit shiva when they didn’t know how to.
I’m just not one to stand on dogma or tradition or party lines or prejudice to tell someone “no” when they’ve asked for something that might make a difficult turn in life’s journey a little easier.
Of course, I hadn’t done all that back then. And I had little idea how to go about an anointing for healing.
So I did a little Bible searching. And came up with our passage from James. It felt a little more grounded to base it in the Bible, like I wasn’t just making things up on my own! When you are just starting out as a minister, and all the unexpected, even frankly weird situations of ministry start popping up, and you’re trying your best to respond faithfully, but sometimes your responses surprise you as much as the need…
you’re always afraid the Protestant police might show up and demand you give your ordination back!
So, I was going to strike out in new religious territory. But I wasn’t quite ready to head over to Mt. Sinai Hospital and Millie’s bedside just yet. First, I had to find the oil! Since my church was in East Harlem,
I ended up in a Botanica, one of those stores in Spanish neighborhoods with candles and statues and all the makings for arts of alternative spirituality, I think they cater mostly to customers practicing Santeria.
I wondered what my parishioners might think if they saw me going in or out of there! Yep, there again, my worry about the Protestant police showing up!
But they had oils in a 100 different, biblically related “flavors.” I chose almond oil — probably mostly because I like marzipan, but I told myself it was because I’d read that almond blossoms are said to have been the model for the menorah that was in the Temple in Jerusalem.
When I walked into her hospital room, Millie looked at the bag in which I was carrying the oil and a little dish, and that was like her “on” button. She started talking. I was worried she was going to tire herself out. Millie had so much to share, practically her whole life.
I haven’t told you yet, because I don’t think it matters — God loves us all not matter what —
but Millie’s path hadn’t been simple or straight. There’d been some detours and probably too many dead ends. I knew of these: they were mostly too big and obvious, public even, not to have known, even for a relative new-comer in the neighborhood. But now she wanted to confess them. To seek some peace as she finished this life.
She talked. Reflected. Tried to explain. Laughed as she remembered. Asked for forgiveness. Cried.
I mostly sat there in silence, which is often best when someone is telling us their deep things.
But I was also trying to remember myself. I had also realized, once she got going, I should have looked up some fancy words or formulas in the Book of Common Prayer or some other holy tome. Beautiful language with the power to forgive and to heal. But it was too late, and I couldn’t remember any great line from all the worship services I’d ever attended.
So, when she finally finished — there was this pause that somehow just signified she’d said what she needed to say, I asked her, “Millie, do you know how much God loves you? “
She looked up at me, hopeful, but now she was silent.
“Milagros Maria Suarez, God loves you so much that none of your misunderstandings, mistakes, missteps or misses… not even all of them together… could possibly leave God loving you any less.
It’s in that love, my dear friend and inescapably sacred child of God, that you are forgiven. And it’s that love that can heal you in this life and heal you even in death. It’s that love which will see you through to life eternal.”
There, in that hospital, in the gown that couldn’t quite keep everything covered, ravaged by the disease,
Millie suddenly looked like a little child again. A little child who’d just been reassured that no matter what
her parent could take care of her.
Beloved, if turning our attention to suffering and healing make you uncomfortable, I am sorry. Church is still safe space: you need not do anything here you don’t want to. But for anyone who wants to, do you hear the permission, the invitation in James:
If you are cheerful, you should sing God’s praises. Just start singing out. Yes, we’ll all think you are a bit crazy, but sing anyway.
If you are suffering, here you can actually ask for solace and comfort and remedy.
If you are burdened with sin, you could confess in front of others and to God and be forgiven.
If you are sick, you can ask anointing prayers and anointing oil that, incredible as it might sound, I and the Elders might play some mysterious role in your being healed.
Can you believe that? …Church-related healing, maybe because it’s church- related, sort of like the church itself these days, seems to have acquired a bad reputation in our time. Like we’re playing out of our leagues. Or like it’s all a hoax. Yes, there are charlatans and quacks who prey on the vulnerable.
Looking to take their own advantage or to make a quick buck, hoping to profit at the expense of the desperate.
One of my predecessors at an earlier church. He had a sort of proper and button-up faith. Deeply believing, but in a sort of stoic way. But when his wife was dying, he couldn’t stand to think of losing her. Her illness and death crushed, broke him. He called in all sorts of faith-healing folks whose traditions before that time, he never would have opened himself to, much less trusted…
Miracle healings, on T.V. or elsewhere, often don’t seem much connected to Jesus’ healings in the bible.
And mostly none of us know the kinds of instantaneous miracles that Jesus effected. But, church, if we think of the Bible, Jesus does an awful lot of healing. Maybe because medicine wasn’t so developed yet.
Or maybe because healing and wholeness and holiness flow intimately from the love of God, whose incarnation Jesus is.
I guess, I’m just asking, even if they make us nervous, downright uncomfortable, shouldn’t we take the healing narratives our of the biblical witness seriously? Church, can we overlook suffering or dismiss healing without denying who Jesus was and who he could be to us?
A colleague here in Philly, a Methodist pastor whose loved one has been very sick, was telling me recently that the UMC Worship Book has a passage that describes what healing is and is not. I couldn’t find the copy of the UMC Worship Book on my shelves, so I don’t have the exact words, but I remember him telling me that it says,
Healing is a ritual of the church. Not magic. And the church’s ministrations are never intended
to replace medicine or mental health care. Healing may never offer a cure in the most literal sense of that word. Rather, it’s about righting our relations. How our minds and body and spirits relate to one another and become a whole. How each of them is holy and sacred in its own right. How they are healthiest when they work together for good.
Healing is also about righting our relations to each other (which your pastor would add isn’t always easy and sometimes is downright counterintuitive). And healing is about our relation to God.
Millie died about 3 weeks after my visit for the anointing. Her hard work that day and my inexperienced, bumbling ministrations had no effect on the virus that was taking her life. But I have never worried, never doubted that her healing was a failure. Millie died having made a new peace with the life she lived,
and with those of us passing the same way as she had.
She told me a few days before her death, she was ready for what was next. She’d grown confident in a God who would watch over the son she was leaving in this life. She trusted the God who loved her into existence in the first place, who’d stayed with her through a whole lot of nonsense, and who she believed would keep loving her into another existence she had come to look forward to.
That, church, is being healed. Amen.
(During the prayers which follow the sermon, instead of our usual tradition, people were invited to name out loud from their pews, their prayers for healing. And then the Elders were invited to join Michael up front, with bowls of oil, and people who wished were invited forward to pray with another person, whose response to their request or concern or prayer began with “Do you know how much God loves you?” They were also offered, only if they wished, an anointing with oil, in the sign of the cross, on their foreheads or palms.)