Sermon preached March 30, 2014
Text: John 9:1-23
I remember when the gospel stories of Jesus became rock operas or rock musicals. I have heard of the wonderful performances of “Jesus Christ, Superstar” that were performed in this very place. “Godspell” continues to be performed years after its debut in 1971. A song from “Godspell,” “Day by Day” became a charted single in the summer of 1972 and its simple lyrics are a wonderful prayer that I have prayed. “Day by day, O dear Lord, three things I pray: to see thee more clearly, to love thee more dearly, to follow thee more nearly – day by day.”
I have sometimes wondered what it might be like, though, to have a soundtrack for the Gospels using more secular songs. Here is a song that could fit today’s story:
The Who, “See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHUjOwn660c
Can’t you imagine the man, born blind, singing this song – see me, feel me, touch me, heal me?
And Jesus does. And the story is told wonderfully with humor and irony. There’s the healing itself. Jesus spits to make mud, puts the mud on the man’s eyes and asks him to go wash in a pool. So this person who has never seen is sent, face full of mud, to find the pool of Siloam? By the way, many trace the toast, “Here’s mud in your eye” to this story! The man washes, and he returns with his sight, and some who knew him only as a beggar find him unrecognizable now. Some of the Pharisees get into an argument about Jesus – whether or not healing on the Sabbath is really appropriate. Rather than deal with the issue at hand, they deny that the man was ever blind, and seek out his parents, who in turn respond – “Don’t ask us, he’s old enough to answer for himself.” The story continues after our reading, an indicates a continuing blindness among at least some of the Pharisees, who cannot figure out what is going on. They continue to asset their own spiritual insight, but fail to listen, saying later to the man, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?”
This is a wonderfully told story. The healing stories of Jesus are wonderful and amazing and puzzling. The healing stories of Jesus challenge us, and one reason they challenge us is because in our lives, healing doesn’t always happen. Cure does not always come. Let’s think about this together for a few moments.
The mighty deeds of Jesus were understood by gospel writers as power from the Power…. The might deeds of Jesus were seen as the product of the power that flowed through him as a Spirit-filled mystic. (Marcus Borg, Jesus, 148) The healing stories of Jesus function primarily to tell us something about Jesus, and through him about God. They tell us about a God who “creates the world, sustains it, and engages in all that is toward healing” (Laurel Schneider, in Constructive Theology, 75). God’s desire is for healing.
God’s desire is for healing, but that’s just the challenge isn’t it? Healing doesn’t always happen. I really appreciate theologian Marjorie Suchocki’s reflections on healing and prayer. God works with the world as it is in order to lead it toward what can be. Prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes what can be. The application of these dynamics to prayers for healing requires recognition that mortality is part of the way the world is, and that immortality within the conditions of history is not part of our possibilities in the world…. Each of us will encounter one disease or dysfunction that leads to our death. Prayers for healing must take place in the full recognition of our mortality. (Marjorie Suchocki, In God’s Presence, 57, 58). God wills the well-being of this world, even in the midst of its fragility and mortality…. Prayers for healing make a difference in what kind of resources God can use as God faithfully touches us with impulses toward our good, given our condition. (Marjorie Suchocki, In God’s Presence, 59).
Mortality is part of the reality of the world in which we live. We will all die. Life is terminal. We may wish it were different, but it is not. Conversations about healing and faith and prayer and God and Jesus occur in that context. Sickness happens. Bodies hurt and parts fail. Often we recover, but in the end something will get us all. Why does healing happen sometimes, and not others, and where is God the healer in all that?
We often appeal to a sense of mystery here, and that is appropriate. Human healing in and of itself is a bit of a mystery. I am amazed by the capacities of the human body. Over the years, as a teacher, Julie has brought home many colds, but I typically don’t catch them. Bring God into the healing equation, and there’s bound to be mystery. But how we appeal to mystery matters, I think. To say that God heals this person but not that person and the reason is shrouded in mystery can leave God sounding kind of capricious.
Some might then respond by arguing that if God desires healing and well-being, and it doesn’t happen, then God is ineffectual. I don’t think that’s the only alternative. God could be seen as one with the strongest influence on any situation, but not the only influence. One could see God as the most powerful influence in the world consistent with other entities also having power. This is something like Marjorie Suchocki’s position. There remains mystery here, the mystery of just how God’s influence operates in life, but it is not the mystery of a God who just chooses this one or that one for healing.
So the healing stories challenge us, and we all have to grapple with the challenge they pose and make our way theologically through this. The bottom line message of these stories, though, is that God is healer. The consistent message is that God is always at work toward healing and well-being, no matter the cause of the hurt or disease. Jesus statement early in the story about sin not being involved in the man’s blindness is not meant to say that God caused the man to be blind for years so that Jesus could come along and heal him. It is a statement of God’s unrelenting work toward healing. I have a friend who has shared that the words of Jesus about sin not being involved in disease were a great comfort to her when she had to deal with breast cancer in her life. It let her know that stuff just happens, and she did not have to be blaming herself for her cancer.
God is healer. Not only do we have to grapple with this idea in a world where everyone dies, we also need to acknowledge the important distinction between healing and cure. Healing can be more than, or other than, cure. I really like the quote from Harry Guntrip on your insert: A problem created in childhood is ‘never too late to mend.’ Age does not necessarily bring loss of capacity for emotional change and relief of longstanding tension. (Harry Guntrip, quoted in H.J. S. Guntrip: a psychoanalytic biography, v) Guntrip was a clergy person before becoming a therapist, and he reminds us that healing has emotional and spiritual connotations. He also reminds us that healing of old emotional wounds is always possible. In the gospel story, the man is not only healed by having sight given, he is healed just as deeply by being recognized by Jesus. The man is seen. The man is welcomed. The man has his life story taken seriously by Jesus. Healing is happening in all kinds of dimensions.
Sometimes healing takes the form of the ability to keep going, even when one’s physical ailments persist, or the challenges in life remain difficult. Last week I quoted Anne Lamott from Help, Thanks, Wow: But grace can be the experience of a second wind, when even though what you want is clarity and resolution, what you get is stamina and poignancy and the strength to hang on. (47) There is a healing in keeping going.
I know a bit of that in my own life. At twenty-one I was diagnosed with chronic ulcerative colitis. I have prayed for its disappearance over the years, but it has not disappeared. Because of my disease, I am at a higher risk for colon cancer, and because of that higher risk I receive an annual colonoscopy. All the recent ad campaigns encouraging colonoscopys bring a smile to me. I have had a couple of scares with results, but thankfully none have turned out to be cancer. Often my prayers now are for keeping going. Just this week, I prayed for some healing relief. Monday I woke up with a terribly stiff neck and shoulders. What from, I don’t know – who sinned? Late Monday, Tuesday, into Wednesday, not only was I stiff, but I was getting spasms in my neck and shoulder, like Charlie horse cramps. It wasn’t very pleasant, but I also had some important things to care for. Warren Berg’s funeral was here Tuesday. My primary prayer was to be able to keep going. I prayed the opening prayer for the Minnesota State Senate on Wednesday. I prayed before hand, more than anything to be able to keep going. I managed, and by Thursday evening my symptoms were subsiding.
Even more than these personal examples, I have learned so much from so many here as you have kept going in dealing with difficult issues in your lives – with discouraging diagnoses, with relationship issues. Healing, in terms of the ending of a disease or the ending of a difficult situation has not always happened, though it certainly does sometimes. Healing as keeping going, as the grace of a second wind I witness a lot.
Just a couple more thoughts about God as healer. If God is the one who “creates the world, sustains it, and engages in all that is toward healing,” – understanding all the complexities of healing in our world, then one of our responses to this God who heals is to be open to that healing in whatever way it may come, and some of the ways it may come have to do with our very openness to that healing. Last week I mentioned Anthony Robinson’s note that we in mainline churches have traditionally been better and seeing ourselves as strong givers to others, but that we need to balance that with receiving. I put his quote on the sheet this week. A one-sided emphasis on giving and behaving as giver… can blind us to our own needs – for grace, for healing, for conversion, for God….The self that is anxious and the self that is hurting; the self that is, yes, capable of giving but that also needs to receive the gifts of God and the grace of God. (Anthony Robinson, Transforming Congregational Culture, 67) The prayer we prayed this morning was intended to help us be more open to our own hurts and needs and wounds so that God as healer might touch our lives more profoundly.
Yet as we are healed, we are also called to be about God’s work of healing. “We must work the works of the One who sends us,” to slightly change the words of Jesus. The priest and writer Henri Nouwen writes about our task in ministry as being wounded healers. Not only are we recipients of the healing grace of God in our lives, but our own wounds might help us be sources of the healing grace of God for others. Making one’s own wounds a source of healing, therefore, does not call for a sharing of superficial personal pains but for a constant willingness to see one’s own pain and suffering as arising from the depth of the human condition which all [persons] share…. How does healing take place? Many words, such as care and compassion, understanding and forgiveness, fellowship and community have been used for the healing task of the Christian. (Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, 88-89). I appreciate Nouwen’s expansive idea of healing – care, compassion, understanding, forgiveness, fellowship, community.
To be honest, I would rather be like Superman whose only weakness is kryptonite than be a wounded healer. That sounds much messier and more complicated. However, it sounds more real, more authentic, more genuine in a world where we all know woundedness, and where all life ends. God, whose one shade is God the healer invites us into a healing relationship, and invites us, as we are being healed, to heal. We are invited, that is, to be more ourselves and be more God-like. Amen.