February 15, 2009

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

2 Kings 5:1-14
Psalm 30
Mark 1:40-54

The following sermon has also been posted online in MP3 audio format.

The Sunday scripture readings over the last few weeks have been very focused on healing, and today is no exception. Back in the fall, when Gillian and I were working on selecting choir anthems for this season, I noticed the “healing” theme coming up again and again. We had just chosen a wonderful anthem for last Sunday (There is a balm in Gilead) and then we looked at the readings for this Sunday, and found we needed to look for another piece of music with a similar emphasis. I’m sure that you will enjoy “Your Gentle Touch” that the choir will share a little later in the worship today.

Healing is a pervasive theme within Christianity and within the scriptures. I think we could spend weeks and weeks on it with all the stories of Jesus healing people of various kinds of diseases, with all the psalms where the authors are crying out to God for healing or giving thanks for healing. And yes, there are even a few Old Testament stories about healing as well — though perhaps not as many as in the Gospels.

I need to admit, though, that healing is a difficult topic. It’s a subject that sometimes makes us uncomfortable in the church. Maybe it’s because of those television faith healers who give healing and the church a bad name… whether it’s because of scams, or tricks… or because they often exaggerate and add lots of drama to get people’s attention.

Maybe healing is a difficult topic because we don’t quite believe that physical healing is possible. I mean, that kind of “faith healing” where someone just prays and puts their hand on you, and you’re healed. Most of the time, I’m pretty sceptical about such things… and many of you probably share that scepticism.

I think that kind of healing is a challenging topic for us because it seems anti-scientific. It seems to suggest that we choose to pray INSTEAD of using the medical community… INSTEAD of going to doctors, and taking medicines, and trusting the wisdom of medical treatments.

We know that there are churches and other faith groups that do avoid modern medical care. They choose to simply trust God to heal them. When they are sick, they pray. And when they don’t get well again, they assume that it was God’s will that their life come to an end at that point. We hear stories about people refusing medical care for curable illnesses, and we think they’re kind of nuts!

And this modern scientific perspective that we have affects the way that we hear and understand readings from scripture like the ones we heard today. Jesus says, “I do choose to make you clean!” And immediately the leprosy leaves the sick man, and he is clean.

In the story of Naaman, the prophet Elisha at least instructs the army commander with leprosy to wash seven times in the river Jordan. Though Naaman was looking for something a little more dramatic and magical, Elisha gives him the simple instruction of going to wash. I don’t know enough about leprosy to know whether the bathing would have made a medical difference to his condition. But I can read it and assume that it would have. I can explain the outcome a little more easily when it doesn’t seem like pure miracle — when it just seems like good medical advice.

But the topic of healing is difficult for another reason. Even if we, as modern scientific people, choose to put our trust in the medical community… even if we put aside the possibility that God might choose to heal us by another means than modern medical treatments… Still, we are people of faith. We still assume that God is with us through our illnesses and injuries. We still assume that God is not simply a helpless observer in our lives, but that God can choose to act — to affect the outcomes of our lives.

When many of you ask the church community to pray for you or your loved ones when you are sick, I know that you believe that prayer makes a difference. Like the psalmists when they were in trouble, I know that you also cry out to God for help and for healing in those times of medical crisis.

The difficult part — I’m sure you know — is the reality that many times those prayers don’t seem to be answered. The topic of healing is challenging because of those situations where we pray and the person does not recover. Those are the tragedies and the disappointments that we do not understand — that we cannot understand.

If someone tells you that they do understand why these terrible things happen… that it was God’s will, that God “needed” that person in heaven, or ‘God forbid’, if they tell you that you didn’t pray “enough” or that the person didn’t “deserve” to live… well, they’re wrong. They do not know. None of us know.

But in spite of the questions that we cannot answer about healing, the church continues to proclaim the good news that God has the power to heal us. We continue to pray for healing. Even as we place our trust in the knowledge and expertise of the medical community, we keep on asking for God’s help too.

I’ve had a couple of experiences in Presbyterian communities of participating in healing services. In both cases, we gathered for a regular service of worship that included special prayers for healing and an opportunity for any who wished to be anointed with oil. The first experience I had was in a Presbyterian church where I was serving as a summer student minister. They had an annual service for healing, and part of my job became to make special invitations to those who were sick, to older people shut in their homes, and to arrange rides to the church for any who required it.

I remember thinking of the whole exercise as pastoral care to those who were sick. It was a helpful thing for those attending to experience how much their church cared about them. It was an uplifting worship with quiet times of prayer, beautiful music… and when each one felt the minister’s touch with a drop of oil on their forehead, I was sure they experienced God’s loving care for them. Some of them told me afterwards that that was indeed how they felt. But I was dubious about the healing effect of the healing service we had planned. I couldn’t see how what we were doing would make any difference to their cancer, or to their emphysema, or to their Alzheimer’s.

Later that same year, I was back at school at Knox College in Toronto, and I participated in another healing service. This time it was a group of students at the college that organized it for one of our regular community worship times on Wednesdays. I thought I understood what the healing service in the church was about — caring for the elderly, providing pastoral care and encouragement… that sort of thing. But when we had a healing service in the college, I was confused.

I didn’t go up to the front of the chapel that day to receive the oil on my head because I didn’t think that it was for me. I wasn’t sick. I was only 27 years old, newly married, and happily enjoying my studies. I watched as others went to receive the anointing oil, and I wondered what their illnesses could be. They looked healthy enough to me.

The next summer, my student experience was to participate in a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. I spent the summer in the Toronto General Hospital, being a chaplain to the cardiology and nephrology units, responding to urgent pastoral needs in the ICU’s and the ER, and doing some intense reflection on the experience. One of the things that I experienced many times that summer was giving pastoral care to Roman Catholic patients and their families who would often request that I call a priest to administer the “Sacrament of Healing”. That’s the same sacrament that is often referred to as “Last Rites” because it is commonly offered when a person is very ill or dying.

In a powerful way, when a priest would come to pray for healing and to anoint the patient with oil, I could see healing taking place. But I only remember one situation in which the patient lived. The others all died. I guess I discovered that summer that healing is about much more than a restoration of the physical body. I observed as many patients and families experienced spiritual healing, reconciliation with God and often with each other, and as they received the gift of God’s peace.

I’ve seen it many times since then too… in hospital rooms here in Saskatoon, among the people and the families of St. Andrew’s in your times of illness and death. Prayer together for healing has been answered… sometimes with recovery, but most often with restoration, with reconciliation, and with peace.

Some people say that God sends us trials in order to make us stronger by them. I don’t believe that God sends the trials — the illnesses, the accidents, the struggles in our relationships — but they do come. There is no doubt that many of our lives are very difficult. Even those of us who seem to be pretty together, who appear to have no problems at all, are usually wounded in some way.

Though I don’t believe God causes these things, I do believe that God can help us through them. God journeys with us — weeping with us in our sorrows, rejoicing with us in our relief… sometimes pointing us towards sources of healing — that though hardly magical or spectacular — are nonetheless miraculous.

As the church, we are called to share in the healing ministry of Jesus. The historical church has always promoted, created, and supported places for medical healing… hospitals, hospices, clinics, and more. The church also offers spiritual healing ministries through chaplains, hospital visitors, and ministers who pray and accompany patients and families through their times of illness.

But more than anything else, we are called to build relationships of trust within our churches so that healing can take place. We need to create a space in our Christian community where hurts and hopes can be shared, where prayer can be offered, and where God can bring healing and peace to each one of us. It makes me wonder about offering a service of healing once in a while. It makes me think about starting a small group ministry — to help us all make connections with each other within the church, to build up the relationships of trust in which sharing and prayer and healing can take place.

But whether or not we create new programs or services, we are a Christian community and we are called to continue the healing work that Jesus began. As Jesus took pity on the man with leprosy and chose to touch him and to heal him, despite the risk that such an act would involve… we are called to be agents of healing for one another. Through our prayers, through our time, through our listening and caring, through our attention and care for those among us who are suffering, we bring the healing of God to one another.

May God strengthen our community and our relationships with each other. And may God, indeed, bring healing and peace. Amen.