February 12, 2012

2 Kings 5:1-14
Mark 1:40-45

As we just heard in today’s Gospel story, Jesus became very well known for his ability to heal. Whether it was a person afflicted with a terrible skin disease like leprosy, a man who could not walk, a woman who couldn’t stop bleeding, or a child seemingly possessed by an evil spirit, Jesus spoke, he touched, or power simply came out of him bringing healing and wholeness and peace. He never used more than a bit of mud in his healing practice, and usually he just did it with a word or a touch that effected rapid healing in the person’s life.

Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

This kind of story is strange and far from most of our experience. It’s the kind of story that we share carefully with our children, recognizing that it may raise questions for them, as it does for us. If Jesus could heal the leper, and the lame man, and the demoniac, and the sick child, then why couldn’t God heal my grandmother, or my best friend? Why doesn’t God heal me when I am suffering?

The question about healing brings to mind a memory I have from when I was a teenager. I don’t remember the details of what I was doing in Montreal, whether I was there with my family or with a school trip, perhaps. But we went to visit one of the Catholic Churches there, St. Joseph’s Oratory. And I’ll always remember the image of the hundreds and hundreds of crutches, and canes, and walkers, and wheel chairs. They weren’t just sitting around, but they were hanging up on the walls everywhere we looked. These were the reminders of the people who had been healed in the church. Like the lame man that Jesus healed, they had “taken up their mats, and walked” away, leaving behind the crutches and chairs that they no longer needed.

I admit that I was sceptical when I saw all those things hanging on the walls of the church, and I’m still pretty sceptical about that kind of healing. Of course, if I saw someone healed miraculously like that I would certainly celebrate with them and give thanks to God for the gift. But I have my doubts about whether God would work that way, or why, if God did, that it wouldn’t always work that way.

Today’s healing story is very brief. A leper comes to Jesus, begging him for help, and reminding him that he really could help if he chose to do so. And Jesus is moved with pity. He agrees to do the healing, and a moment later it is done. But what happens next is a bit strange.

Jesus sternly warns the man before sending him away. He says, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”

The instruction to “show yourself to the priest” makes sense. If a person with leprosy actually got better, the first thing he would do would be to go to the priest. The priest would check him over, and confirm that indeed, he was well. The key point was that he was no longer contagious. The priest would declare him clean, invite him to make an offering of thanks to God, and then the former leper would be free to continue with life – no longer quarantined to protect everyone else from his illness.

Jesus says, “It’s okay to tell the priest, but please don’t tell anyone else about this.” And we have to wonder why. Maybe it was because if he went out and told everyone about the miracle, Jesus would get swamped with people looking for similar miracles.

The fact was that Jesus was moved with pity and he helped the leper, but maybe he’s not really too excited about healing every single person who might come looking for help. Maybe it would be too much. Maybe if performing healing miracles became Jesus’ full-time job, he wouldn’t have any time left to fulfil his calling, which was about much more than healing miracles.

I can’t claim to have Jesus’ power to heal diseases, but as part of my role here at St. Andrew’s, I have the discretion to make use of the Session Benevolence Fund when I become aware of church members or others who are in serious need. In recent months, I’ve started to pick up some grocery gift cards that can be given to folks who are out of food and out of other options.

I can imagine how Jesus might have felt with that leprous man kneeling at his feet and begging him for help. I’ve felt that ache of pity when there’s been a young single mom crying on the phone for my help – for the church’s help.

And a couple of times, I’ve said something like what Jesus said. “See that you say nothing to anyone. Don’t tell all your friends that I gave you a gift card. It’s not that I don’t want to help them. It’s just that the resources are limited. We just don’t have enough to take on feeding all the hungry people of Saskatoon.”

Jesus was moved with pity. He had compassion on the man with leprosy and healed him. He hoped, I suppose, that the man wouldn’t tell everyone about it. He hoped that everyone wouldn’t expect such a miracle because even if Jesus spent all day every day healing one person after another, there would never be enough time to heal them all, at least not in the way that they were hoping to be healed.

When we talk about healing in the church, the question arises as to what we are praying for when we ask God to heal someone. Some may literally be expecting a miracle… for someone’s cancer to disappear, for someone’s legs to start working again, for someone’s blood pressure to suddenly return to normal… The minister, or someone, waves their hand over the spot, or says the right words, or asks God with the right attitude, and the person will be healed.

That’s the kind of healing that Naaman, the army commander with leprosy, was looking for in today’s story from 2 Kings. Naaman was a great warrior who suffered from a terrible skin disease. It was a young Israelite girl who was serving Naaman’s wife who suggested a solution: Naaman should go to Israel. There’s a prophet there with great healing powers.

So Naaman’s king, the King of Aram, sends Naaman to Israel and sends along a letter to the King of Israel asking him to arrange for a healing. In addition to the letter, Naaman brings along a lot of wealth – silver, gold, and many garments. Payment for the healing? A bribe? Certainly, this great man is willing to buy the help he needs. He’s not looking for a hand-out.

But the King of Israel is confused and upset by the letter. He obviously doesn’t know that such healing is possible. Or if he does, he doesn’t know how to provide it for Commander Naaman. He’s worried that the King of Aram is trying to pick a fight. He’s afraid that there’s going to be another war if he can’t provide what Naaman needs.

Along comes the prophet Elisha to the rescue. “Send him to me,” Elisha tells the king, “I can take care of him.”

But when Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house, ready and waiting for his miraculous healing, Elisha neither lets him in, nor comes out to meet him. He sends a message instead: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”

As you know, Naaman got angry and upset when he heard this. He was an important man, and he was expecting something more spectacular: “I thought that for me he would surely come out,” Naaman complained. “[I thought that he would] stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!” Instead, he’s just telling me to have a bath. Well, to have seven baths, and to have them in a muddy river!

If it wasn’t for the encouragement of some of his servants, Naaman probably wouldn’t have even followed the prophet’s advice. He would have missed the miracle because it wasn’t flashy enough, because it wasn’t quick enough, because it didn’t look like a fancy healing miracle.

Naaman’s healing wasn’t instantaneous. There was no magical cure. But healing did take place. Healing took place through the willingness of Naaman to participate in the healing process, through the determination to go down to the river and wash, and to go again, and to go again. Elisha told him to do it seven times – a symbolic number, representing fullness and completeness. And when he actually did it, he was healed.

Earlier this week, someone told me about an amazing story of healing. It was the terrible story of a girl that was shared on the Dr. Phil show on TV. I don’t know all the details because I didn’t watch it myself, but as I understand it, they had an eighteen year old woman on the show who had survived an absolutely horrific childhood.

From the ages of 2 to 6, this poor girl had been locked in a closet by her parents. She lived there all the time, naked and alone, eating only scraps of food, and not even allowed out to use the bathroom. When the adults did pull her out of the closet, they would wash her off, have sex with her, and then throw her back into the closet.

Without going into any more detail than that, it is clear that this girl was subjected to pure evil, deprived of all the things that children need to grow healthy and strong – food, shelter, conversation, care, and unconditional love.

What amazed me when I heard this story was that she survived at all. And what amazed me even more was that through the dedication, and care, and love of a new mother and a new family, this girl was actually healing. It had been a long and difficult journey, and there was obviously still a long way to go. But she talked about her faith in God, and her belief that if she had survived what happened to her, God must have a purpose for her life. She must have some good to share in the world.

There was no quick fix for the terrible things that had been done to this girl’s body, mind, and spirit. But as Naaman was healed through the slow, repetitive work of going down and washing in the river, and going down and washing in the river, and going down and washing in the river, this girl was healing also… slowly, haltingly, and often painfully healing… but there’s no doubt that her healing is a miracle.

I heard another story of healing recently. It was the story of a man in his 70’s who had, in his childhood, attended one of the residential schools that was operated by the Presbyterian Church in Canada. This man, along with many others, took the opportunity provided by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to tell his story at one of the hearings that took place in Prince Albert a couple of weeks ago.

We listened as he spoke for over an hour about what happened to him when he was only 5 years old. He was taken away from his home and his family to live hundreds of kilometres away at a residential school where he stayed for a full five years without an opportunity to visit home. His sister was there too, but since she was a girl, he didn’t get to see her. His hair was cut short, his language was disallowed, and he experienced severe physical and sexual abuse in that place.

He shared about the many challenges that followed throughout his adult life. He was in and out of jail, he became addicted to alcohol, and he had trouble maintaining relationships. He spoke of many regrets about his inability to be a good father to his children. He did a lot of harm, and he carried a lot of guilt feelings for the mistakes that he made.

But he gave credit to a couple of good friends who sat beside him in support as he shared his story. These were the people who helped him to turn his life around, to get off the streets where he had been living, and to begin the healing journey.

I got the impression, as I listened to this man speaking, that this wasn’t the first time he had shared his story. This time was for the record, but I imagine he had already told it over and over to friends, to elders, and to those who sat with him in healing circles.

He had been hurt. It was terrible. And it had led to a great deal of suffering for this man and for many others who encountered such a broken and hurting person. But by facing his pain, by telling his story, by working through what had happened to him, he had begun to heal.

He talked about the spiritual practices that helped him – going out into the woods and talking to God in prayer. And when I introduced myself to him at lunch time, he told me that he had learned how to forgive. He said he didn’t blame the church anymore. And he didn’t blame God either.

There are some things in all our lives that need healing. Yes, there are illnesses and ailments that we need to address, things from which we cannot heal unless we go to the doctor, and follow the instructions, and take the medications, and adjust our diets, and do the exercises, and care for the bodies that God has given to us.

And there are some other things that need healing… broken hearts and broken dreams, broken relationships and broken expectations. Our minds and our spirits also need healing, and that healing doesn’t happen with the wave of a hand or a few special words from a minister.

That healing takes time, and work, and patience, and determination to listen for God’s message of grace and love, to watch for Christ’s presence in our midst, and to walk in the ways of Christ each day, with the presence and help of the Holy Spirit.

It requires us to work on ourselves and our relationships both with God and our neighbours, to worship, to read the scriptures, and to respond to God’s Word with our lives and our gifts. It means taking care of the spirits that God has given to us.

So let us go down to the river and immerse ourselves in the healing waters. And let us do it again, and again, and again. And may God grant us healing and peace. Amen.