Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Death Cannot Prevent Healing

Sermon preached on the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 5, 2012 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene:  Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-39

Death Cannot Prevent Healing

The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth….[who] gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.

My Grandmother Leah
            As a preacher, I must confess, I am not fond of the stories of Jesus healing the sick.  I tried this week to wrestle with why that is so.

            Certainly it has something to do with the difficulty of interpreting these stories to a 21st century audience.  There is nothing like a good exorcism story from one of the Gospels (such as we had last week) to underscore what a different world we live in from Jesus and his contemporaries.

            That is not all, however, and it is really just the reason on the surface.  If I dig a little bit I come face to face with my own relationship with illness and, ultimately, death.  It is something that most of us will avoid coming face to face with as much as possible.  And why not? There does not seem to be any possibility for good news there.

            I think the most awful thing for me about sickness and death is their capacity to separate us from, well, ultimately, life.  We all know this from our experience of death, the overwhelming loss of relationship that is almost too much to bear.

            Illness does this to us as well, though.  When I was sick three or so years ago and was on disability for awhile, I felt the physical separation I experienced from this community acutely.  Illness can isolate us from others.  But illness also can divide us from ourselves in a way, as we experience what seems like the betrayal of our bodies or minds.

            And then there is the separation we can feel from society and its sense of well-being, no matter how warped that sense of well-being is.  I remember one of my New Testament teachers in seminary describing how in Jesus’ day, illness was a cultural phenomenon.  Illness almost always resulted in a status of “unclean.”  Illness was a manifestation of weakness and/or guilt.  Sin and illness were inextricably entwined.

            I approached him after class and said that such a way of experiencing and interpreting illness was still alive and well.  “Yes,” he said, “in certain primitive cultures.”  I responded, “You mean like 20th century Western New York?”

            My great grandmother, Pearl, had a saying, “Growing old is fine unless you weaken.”  Being sick in my family did not bring on a great deal of sympathy.  Still doesn’t.  The assumption, even if unspoken, is that you probably did something wrong. We still use that language, don’t we?  We say, “Something is wrong with my arm.”

            I remember when my great grandfather, Carl, died in 1977.  Grandpa Carl had sliced the fingers of his left hand in the late 1950’s working on a potato harvester.  I remember his son saying as we walked away from the grave, “It is too bad he spent so many years being worthless.”  And I remember when my Grandma Pearl had to leave her home and go into a nursing facility at the age of 96.  There was this sense in the family that she had failed.  And we use that language too, don’t we?  “I saw so-and-so in the hospital. She’s failing.”

            Interestingly enough, the Greek word we translate as “devil,” diabolos, literally means “the divider,” or “the separator.”  Demonic forces are forces that separate us, draw us apart, split us off.  Perhaps the gut-level understanding of illness in Jesus’ day is really not very far from our own.

            That means healing is a bringing together, or, one might say, a making whole.  The trouble we have in the church is when we use the word “healing” that is what we mean.  We do not mean “cure.”  We don’t even mean the lack of illness.  It is entirely possible for someone who is sick, even dying, to be healed in the sense of “made whole.”  I think this is what we mean when we talk about dying “a good death.”  It is to die healed, in a state of wholeness, or something close to it.

            We get hung up on the “miracle” aspect of these healing stories, something I think even Jesus knew was not helpful.  I’m convinced that was part of why he did not want people talking about him.  He knew that a relationship with God based on God’s ability to do miracles was a dead end, so to speak.  Even if miracles happen, they are always a short-term solution.  Jesus may have raised Lazarus from the dead, but Lazarus died again at some point.  In the long run, death trumps miracle every time.

            But death cannot trump wholeness.  Death cannot separate us from God and, therefore, death cannot separate us from one another.  Physically, yes.  Spiritually, no.  In one sense the only miracle that counts for us is the miracle of our baptism, when we are acknowledged as eternal members of the communion of saints, “marked as Christ’s own for ever.”  We are in an indissoluble bond with God.

            In our exuberance at this good news we sometimes are tempted to say too much, as our ancestors have before us.  We want there to be a simple formula. If I am right with God, God will watch over me and guard me.  Take the hymn “Eagle’s wings,” inspired by our passage from Isaiah this morning.  The last verse:

For to the angels he’s given a command
To guard you in all of your ways;
Upon their hands they will bear you up,
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.

            Lovely, but dangerous, I think.  Very tempting. I want it to be true.  But I have plenty of stubbed toes that seem to say otherwise.  And I think it is way too simple to say that they were my fault.  Some of them, yes.  But by no means even most.

            Isaiah actually says it better

The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth….[who] gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.

            It is God who creates, brings together, makes whole, gives power and strength, courage and peace, even when our foot has been dashed against a stone, even when we are well beyond the grasp of miracle.

            So is it OK to pray for a miracle?  Or healing as in a cure?  Of course it is.  I think that’s about as natural as breathing.  But, keep your spiritual wits about you when faced with illness—either your own or another’s.  Wholeness is what is of ultimate importance.  Relationship is what really matters.

            I’ve talked about my grandmother Leah some before. She was Pearl’s daughter, although, unlike her mother, she did not live a long life. She died of colon cancer at the age of 49, when I was 11.  I was her eldest grandchild and we were relatively inseparable.

            The day before she died I was sitting in the hospital lobby while my mother and great grandmother went to see her.  I wasn’t allowed in, of course.  But then my mother appeared, and said, “She wants to see you.”

            Blessedly, this little hospital in Hornell was all on one floor. So my mom took me outside and around to the window into my grandmother’s room. I was startled by her appearance.  It was my first time staring death in the face.

The window was open, just a screen.  I don’t remember saying any words.  There weren’t any words to say, just to be there.  Against the orders of the doctors, my great grandmother had brought one of my grandmother's favorite meals, “peas and potatoes” cooked in hot milk and butter.  She had eaten a goodly portion.

            “I wish you could have some,” she said.  It was something we had shared countless times.  “The screen won't open,” my mother added.  I touched the screen.  My grandmother nodded, and touched the screen back.

            My grandmother died the next morning.  I was devastated but I was not destroyed.  I knew, even without the language of faith, that the relationship I had with her would never die and I knew she knew that too.

            Death visited us and it was terrible, but death could not take the wholeness away.  Death could not prevent healing.

            That is what Isaiah meant, I think, when he said that we would soar with wings like an eagle.

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