Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
I am reading a book by Will Willimon, a retired Methodist bishop, called Why, Jesus? And he has titles for Jesus like Preacher, Vagabond, Party Person, Peacemaker, Home Wrecker (another sermon), and Magician. The chapter on Magician is really about Jesus the healer and what his healings might be or mean. How do we see the healing hands of Jesus in our 21st century world when we put a lot more trust in medicine, government (diminished but still there), etc. than we do in the power of God to heal and guide us? If we begin asking ourselves the question, “Who is Jesus to me, really?,” how do we connect with the healing possibility of Jesus in my life and in the world?
Once a month I officiate a Eucharist at Touchpoints here in Farmington, a ministry already underway when I arrived more than six years ago.
Touchpoints is a skilled nursing care and rehabilitation facility. Each month in our time together we sing three or four hymns (a lovely gent from New Britain named Phil Pearson plays the semi-in-tune piano), read one or two passages from scripture, and share the Eucharist. This past week we used today's’ reading Mark and, as is my custom, I share a short reflection with them after the Gospel and before prayers and Eucharist.
And I as I began to talk about healing, I looked out at them. Almost all of the people there were from the memory unit and are in dealing with some form of dementia. Most of them have physical challenges; many are confined to wheelchairs and more than a few are unresponsive. I stopped myself mentally and thought: What am I doing?? What can healing possibly mean to these good people? These folks who are at the end stages of life, struggling in a way no one should have to…what benefits of healing could they anticipate without immediately thinking of heaven?
And that is a major hurdle for us, or can be, in our faith journey. Relentless suffering and illness that plague so many. We see Jesus of the Gospels who heals everyone, I mean all who come to him for physical healing. He typically touches them first (occasionally he does a long-distance healing, as with the young girl with a demon today), then they are made well. Many, many Christians today are unsure of even the healings talked about in scripture. Did Jesus do those things? People with life long illness are not suddenly cured of them. People don’t come back from the dead, do they? And it can cast our whole faith, our whole trust in scripture and our life with God in doubt.
Will Willimon reminds us that Jesus was and is the Son of God. If we believe that Jesus is who He claimed to be, then what is not possible? Jesus healed out of His great compassion, His great love. And Jesus’ healings are more than physical healings they represent the removal of the inability to follow God because of physical or emotional barriers. We ask why God doesn’t heal in the world anymore. I would posit that I am not sure he doesn’t? I believe that God can do all things but, it is an age-old question: if God can heal us, why doesn’t He? If we have compassion for the people we love and would gladly take their suffering upon us, why doesn’t God? The unsatisfactory answer is, “I don’t know. Neither does anyone else.” But the Most Rev. Rowan Williams reminds us, and I am paraphrasing, “If God healed everything that ailed us, brought everything into harmony, where would it all end? What choices would there be left for us to make?”
Perhaps the bigger question is, “Why did Jesus come among us in the first place?” Was it to heal all of our pain? Was it to make everything alright? Was it to physically alter the world so that there would be no more suffering or pain? Sometimes we actually discover God’s goodness, difficult though it seems, in the very midst of suffering and pain. Rather, Jesus came among us to sweep away the obstacles that stand between us and God – and illness is generally not among them. He came to restore the fractured covenant between us and God, the one that we could not hold up our end of; to usher in a new age when humanity would recognize that our trust in God is truly all that we can always rely on to the very end of the world. Healthy relationships, loving hearts, and healed spirits depend on our reliance on God – not medicine, not politicians, not even family. The grace and mercy of Christ is the balm that can truly heal us and heal the challenges of our spiritual, emotional and, often, our physical lives.
African slaves brought to this continent by the millions over a period of 250 years were not Christian when they came. Their forced conversion to Christianity was sin that is too great for us to talk about here. But as they claimed Christ’s reality, not the one that their slave-owners gave them but their own reality of God, they found tremendous strength, faith, and courage. And they often invented songs that would eventually be written down. One of these most compelling we now know as There is a Balm in Gilead.
Now Gilead was an actual place in old Palestine, but balm of Gilead actually refers to a resin found in various types of balsamic trees; in Palestine, the resin most likely came from the buds/branches of the terebinth tree. Trees that produce balm of Gilead are found in Asia, Africa, and North America, too. Native peoples in N. America used the resin as an expectorant, to clear the lungs when someone had bronchitis, asthma, or pneumonia. Other peoples have used the resin as an anti-inflammatory or pain reliever, as it contains salicylic acid which is found in aspirin.
African slaves, who were kept in bondage generationally in this country, took this idea of a healing balm, a resin or ointment, and found in it the germ of faith and hope in the healing power of God to free His captive people. The spiritually healing power of God in Christ was as real to them as the restoration of the deaf man’s hearing was in the Gospel of Mark today.
The healing mercy, grace, and love of God that is the life and resurrection of Jesus – and our restored hopes through Christ – is the way of healing our wounded hearts. Our future lives depend on our willingness to seek healing where it most surely can be found. Reconciliation in the world is shaped only through the presence of God’s healing balm in the world. The balm of God in Christ is love; His tenderness, His power to transform and renew. Christ has saved us through the gift of His love and there is a tremendous healing, waiting to be discovered, in the balm of God’s mercy in Christ, the true healer.