Faith. Healing. II

James 5:14-16; Psalm 145: 1-5, 17-21; Luke 5:17-26

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We are coming to the end of the year, the end of the secular year on December 31st, and the end of the Christian liturgical year on November 30.  However we mark it, this year has been a year of great challenge.  Many of us still have thorns in our flesh: still, none of us are getting any younger; our personal challenges may still be with us or may even have increased.  This year it is not just the personal pain we may feel in the challenges to our health, wealth, work, or personal relationships; this year has brought great pain for others and for the world as well, griefs so large, so complex we can hardly name them, or bear to acknowledge them, or recognize the effects they have on us.  Here in Boston, the Marathon bombings and their shock in an historic event on a lovely day, the lockdown of a major American metropolitan area, the deaths that included two of Boston University’s own and folks that lived in our community’s neighborhoods.  All this against a continuing backdrop:  the so-called “natural” disasters, most recently the typhoon in the Philippines with its incredible strength and destruction; the accelerating threat of extinction of species including our own, some species also valued by humans but all precious in God’s creation; the complexities and complicities of our lives, often without our knowledge or consent, in human-trafficking and modern-day slavery, and in the career to endless war; the continued attempts to exclude LGBTQ people from full inclusion in religious and civic life.  Insert your own particulars here.

There have been many calls for the need for healing over the last year; there have been fewer proposals as to how that healing might come about.  And while there were indeed many poignant moments during the Red Sox Rolling Rally, we cannot always count on a series win for

healing, either individual or communal. … Go Celtics!

When I told folks that I would be preaching on this Gospel text from Luke, a number of them said to me, “Oh, that’s one of my favorites!”   This is in part due to the creative enterprise of the men, who knock apart someone’s roof to let the paralyzed man down to the floor, all the while shedding debris on him, the crowd, and Jesus.  And the rest is due to the fact that this is a Gospel healing story, with some unique features that are indeed good news in a quest for healing.

For one, Jesus’ reaction is notable:  “When he saw their faith”, he speaks to the paralytic, with words of forgiveness and healing.  Many of Jesus’ healings took place, not at the request of those who were sick themselves, but of others who brought their sick to Jesus to be healed.  Here Jesus acknowledges it is not just the faith of the paralytic,  if we can even assume here that he has faith, but it is also the faith, the expectancy and trust of the bearers themselves, so great that they break through a roof, that helps to bring about the healing.

Also, Jesus does not immediately heal the paralytic physically.  Instead, the first thing he says to the paralytic is, “Your sins are forgiven.”  And then he apparently doesn’t say anything, as if that were enough, as if that were the healing that needed to happen, not the healing of the man’s paralysis.  Sin apparently has to do with lack of well-being.  Now we want to be careful here.  Jesus never associates illness or physical condition with God’s punishment, and he does not always give forgiveness of sins to a sick person.  And, as here, he does also often says to a person that their sins are forgiven as a preliminary to healing.  Now some of my friends call me a semanticist, one who is concerned for the meaning of words generally and in context.  It’s a title I’m proud to carry, as I think that there is not nearly enough definition of terms in the life of faith.  Particularly as we consider the word “sin”.  It’s so often limited by fear and ignorance to who and how we love, or to anything remotely related to a good time especially when it is had by “other” people.  So in line with the definition of many scholars and fellow clergy, for the purposes of this sermon “sin” is anything that separates us:  from God, from our “own-most” selves, and from our neighbor, neighbor broadly defined as the person sitting next to us wherever we are this morning all the way to the whole of creation.  Looked at in this way, sin, our own sins and sins of others, does have a direct bearing on our health of every kind:  physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and relational.  Our own Chapel Associate Jennifer Quigley has spoken eloquently from this pulpit about the choices we make to find ourselves or to lose ourselves.   And if we lose our selves how can we be whole?  Likewise our own Chapel Associate Jessica Chicka has spoken eloquently from this pulpit about the dangers of fracking. And if we ignore or allow the poisoning of our land and our water and our air, how can we be whole?  The Psalmist in Psalm 32 acknowledges that his unconfessed sin wastes away his body, and only with confession and forgiveness comes relief.  Sometimes confession of sin is the first step to being whole, to name what is not well with us and be able to let it go, so that we can begin to ask how we might mend.

Next, the scribes and the Pharisees are horrified by Jesus’ forgiveness:  “Who can forgive sins but God alone!”  We remember that the Pharisees are influential layfolk who are very concerned about the strict observance of both the written religious law and its interpretation in oral tradition.  We remember that the scribes are specialists in the study of the religious law – elsewhere Luke calls them “lawyers”.  They have come from all over the country to see and listen to Jesus, and now with this outrageous statement these important people accuse him of blasphemy.  And then Jesus asks a question:  “Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you’, or to say “Stand up and walk”?  And then he heals the paralytic, as a sign, that he has the authority to forgive sins.

When we think of healing, we often think of “cure”, and we often limit our thinking to physical cure, of an illness or a condition.  But in the Greek, to heal  can also mean to save, and/or to make whole.  In English as well, our words for health, salvation, and wholeness come from the same root.  The word “wholeness” in particular derives from the word “holism”, which does not mean a compartmentalized or disassociated view of human life and nature, but means the organic or functional relationship between parts of a whole.  Jesus’ healings of the physical witness to God’s intention to restore wholeness to all people and to all creation.  They testify to the spiritual power of God on which the kin-dom is built and on which we can build our lives.  But even in these testimonies physical healing is only one part of what is going on, and — dare we say it in a culture obsessed with physical perfection – it is not necessarily the most important part.  If it comes, well and good and glorify God.  And, just as notably sins are forgiven, Jesus’ authority in the Spirit is established, the man is restored to God and to his family and friends rejoicing, and everyone, even the formerly horrified scribes and Pharisees, glorify God.

Here we are reminded also of Matthew, also known as Levi, a tax collector under the Empire’s  occupation and so considered a traitor, who had no physical condition but was recognized for who he could be by Jesus,  and then accepted the call to become a disciple.  We are reminded too of the woman with the alabaster jar, who had no physical condition but had her sins forgiven and her grief comforted and was recognized by Jesus for her great love.  Healing encompasses the whole person:  body, mind, emotions, spirit, and relationships.  Which indeed is easier:  to say, “Your sins are forgiven.”, or to say, “Stand up and walk.”?  Which indeed is the greater miracle: to be restored to physical health, or to be able to kick a habit or addiction, or forgive a relative or friend, or transform a conflict, or be in right relationship with God, ourselves, our neighbor on land and in water and in air?  Jesus offers not just a cure, the cessation of symptoms or condition, but the opportunity to be whole, to be truly healed in any and all aspects of our lives.

Jesus entrusted his disciples with this ministry as well.  In both Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts, both from the same author, Jesus’ disciples are seen to have the same power to heal as he did, and the early church assumed that healing was part of their community life.  A specific practice has come down to us in our text from James: the one who is ill, who is not whole, should call for the elders, the leaders in the church, and have them pray in faith, in expectancy and trust.  Those prayers of faith will raise up the one who is not whole, and again, sins will be forgiven.  Church members are to confess their sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that all may be made whole persons in right relationship.  Like the men in the story who brought the paralyzed man to Jesus, so we bring one another to the healing power of God.  John Wesley, the founder of my own faith tradition of Methodism, referred to our being “stewards of grace” to one another in such practices, practices that he called “means of grace”, those practices in which we remind each other of the power of God at work in our lives through the power of the Spirit in the name of Jesus, so that we are able to be continually moving toward a state of wholeness, of right relationship.

It is true.  We do need healing, after this year certainly, but also at many points in our lives; perhaps, given the times in which we live, at all times.  The church has formalized this practice so that both “elders” or “leaders” and those who request prayer for healing are stewards of grace for one another.

That is why, in the new church year, we will experiment, to restore this practice outlined in James here at Marsh Chapel.  On the first Communion Sunday of each liturgical season, we will offer two healing stations during the Communion, one each just under these first windows, so that after partaking of Communion, any of us who feel so moved may come, say what concern we have for our own healing, be joined in the concern in a brief prayer, only after giving permission receive a gentle laying on of hands on or just above the shoulder, only after giving permission be anointed with oil on the forehead, and be blessed.  In this way, we too will be stewards of grace for one another.

We are offering this practice with Communion, as Communion is our clearest affirmation of the presence of God in our midst.  It is where the confession and forgiveness of sins that we are offered every week are underscored by God’s nourishment of us in bread and wine, underscored by God’s empowerment of us by the outpouring of the Spirit.  It is where the congregational recognition of our common life encourages us to bring our individual needs to God with faith, with expectancy and trust that God’s will is for our good in all aspects of our lives.

This is an experiment, in the sense that our initial practice will be time-limited to the first Communion service of each new liturgical season, for this next church year.  Don’t worry about keeping track of the dates – we’ll keep you posted and the first time will be the first Sunday of the new church year, Advent I on December 1.  There will also be ways to evaluate our practice:  there will probably be surveys – short surveys — but also as we welcome your emailed and written responses and your conversational observations.  This practice is also offered with the clear understanding and thanksgiving that there are many ways of healing given to us by God:  the fields of medical, surgical, mental, emotional, and relational  health, the arts, the work of justice, the work of peace.  This spiritual practice is intended to work with these other gifts, to promote the whole health of the whole person.

To pray for healing is not us trying to change God’s mind.  It is to put ourselves in a place of cooperation with God so that the Spirit can work in us toward the wholeness in all aspects of our lives that God intends.  We invite your prayers for this ministry, in trust and expectation, and, dearly beloved, the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.  Glory to God.  Amen.

~Rev. Victoria Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

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