[I began this sermon with the personal story of when my niece was eight months old and fell down the stairs in a baby walker. She suffered severe internal bleeding in her skull and was rushed to the hospital where they removed one of her skull plates, sucked out the blood, and re-inserted the plate.]
It wasn’t too long ago that a baby like Lauren would have died from her injuries 100% of the time. It’s through the modern miracles of technology that a baby in her situation could survive, heal, and live a normal life. Think about all of the technology that worked together to save Lauren’s life, many systems of technology that did not even exist or barely existed just 100 years ago: phone networks, 911 response centers, ambulances, police and emergency dispatch and response, and a vast array of medical technologies. And then think about all the other systems and people necessary to support the systems I did mention, like oil production and fuel refining, vehicle manufacturers, vehicle fleet maintenance, public schools and universities for education and training, corporations dedicated to research and innovation, school teachers and administrators, drivers and mechanics, doctors, nurses, paramedics, and a host of other hospital and medical services support staff like administrators, computer programmers, custodians, and on and on it goes. It is not a stretch to say the entire human civilization and its history worked together to save Lauren’s life because everything, yes, everything is so richly and deeply interconnected that it’s likely impossible to untangle one such event from everything else in human history.
And yet, 100 years ago, in a similar accident, Lauren would have died. But this person, my niece Lauren, now lives. Every day the sheer presence of her life on this earth is a testimony to healing. She is what healing looks like.
My intention is not to single out Lauren as somehow the culmination of human history, but rather to demonstrate through her story that each and every one of us occupies the same culminated place in history. We’re all here because everything else in history went “just so” and “in order that” we would be here today.
But what’s the life and death difference between what happened with Lauren 20 years ago and what would have been her demise 100 years ago? We could easily say something about scientific and technological progress, but what’s the theological difference?
Healing. The world, the world is healing, and science and technology are playing an ever increasing role in the world’s health, for good and for ill. The science of nuclear fission was at work in both the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that killed tens of thousands of people in mere instants, and nuclear fission is at work each and every moment the world over providing power for numerous millions of people. We have the power to rip apart the very fabric of matter to destroy and to create, to heal.
All of life is the process of cells ripping apart to form new cells and then bonding together or healing, as it were, to form new structures, new organs, new plants, new animals, and new people like you and me. We’re all the result of healing. All of life is moving forward to every increasing newness and diversity of life. This grand “moving forward” of life is “healing” in itself, moving forward with God as Creator and to God as Redeemer and Culminator. We’re part of a grand process of healing that began in the very beginning of the creation when God ripped open an empty space within eternity and placed into it the potential for amazing diversity and otherness with which God could relate and expand and love.
Unfortunately, some religious folk have taken captive the idea of religious healing by isolating it to the outcome of divine miraculous “cure,” which has all too often been shamelessly commercialized, especially by prosperity gospel and word of faith televangelists. Seeking miraculous healing emphasizes reversion to some kind of wellness status quo that existed before the disease, illness, accident, or violence happened to the body. Seeking miracles without healthy respect for mortality can be a denial of the grander healing process of God’s creation and ultimately God’s fulfillment. In Matthew 12:39 we read: “Jesus answered, ‘Evil and sinful people are the ones who want to see a miracle for a sign. But no sign will be given to them, except the sign of the prophet Jonah.’” Of course the “sign of the prophet Jonah” is a prophetic reference to the resurrection of Jesus on the third day. The Resurrection is the ultimate sign of healing.
If healing is reduced to an arbitrary assessment of improvement in one’s condition, then healing as a religious term may suffer the same linguistic fate of the term “spirituality” in pop culture, as in, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” which presumably means something like, “I’m a free, independent, ethical agent, not a blind follower of an impersonal, outdated, hierarchical institution.” Religious healing is the affirmation of life even, or perhaps especially, in the midst of pain and suffering. In the words of Reconstructionist Rabbi Richard Hirsh: “Healing is the transcendence of illness, of body and/or spirit, through the affirmative response to the blessing of life and the acknowledgement of the gift of living. This is not only cure, not only recovery, not only caring; … healing [is] the worked-for and worked-through path from despair to affirmation, and from denial to acceptance.”
Lauren’s story is an example of “physical” healing. But what of “spiritual” healing?
When you open your Bibles to Matthew chapters 5-7, the “Sermon on the Mount,” you will find that the author of this Gospel carefully constructed his text by framing Jesus’s sermon with stories of healing. At the end of chapter four we read that Jesus healed people of “every disease and every sickness” and that more and more people “brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics.” On the other end of the “Sermon on the Mount” we encounter the specific healing stories we heard this morning in chapter eight. In the case of the man with the leprous skin condition, Jesus instructed him to not tell others but to go immediately to the priest as a testimony. Why? Because Jesus, as an observant Jew, was following the Torah instruction from Leviticus. Go to the priest, and he “shall make atonement on your behalf … and you shall be forgiven.” The priest had the power to validate the restoration from uncleanness to cleanness and thus restore a person fully to community. Sin, forgiveness, atonement, and purity in the ancient priestly instructions of Leviticus were all about one thing: the Holiness of God. All of the details of Leviticus look to us today as ancient, incomprehensible practices and procedures, but the purpose of all their rituals and practices is simple and is summarized in Leviticus chapters 11 and 20: “For I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.”
Surely, holiness has a lot to do with physical health; the early Christians believed this, as taught by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 6, that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. Holiness also has to do with our spiritual health, and that is of primary concern in Jesus’s “Sermon on the Mount,” especially the beginning of the sermon with the Beatitudes, which we will encounter next week.
Spiritual healing is then the will of both God and humans to constantly seek newness of life instead of seeking restoration to some previous state of health. In times of sickness, newness of life is the re-focused life, the affirmation of the gift of life itself. In the midst of sickness, worship, prayer, meditation, and study are spiritual healing practices that transform the unified soul-person into an agent of wholeness by accepting and appreciating one’s finitude and mortality and, counter-intuitively, a healthier perspective on who God is. We become aware, in Rabbi Hirsh’s words, that “God enters into relationship with the ‘us’ which is more than (but not separate from) body.” We are more than our individual physical bodies and our individual spiritual souls. We are all deeply interconnected, and as with my niece Lauren, we are all here today because we are all deeply connected.
We encounter in the Gospels that many people came forward to be healed by Jesus or to ask Jesus for others to be healed. The leprous man came forward to Jesus, the centurion came forward to Jesus on behalf of his servant, and at Peter’s house people brought forward all sorts of other people to be healed.
We all are in need of healing and we are all being healed in some way or another. But are you coming forward to be healed? Or are you seeking healing as reversion to some previous state of being status quo? Coming forward in your healing process looks ultimately to the Resurrection, the culmination of God’s kingdom on earth and in heaven, the grand inclusion of all of God’s creation into a harmonious whole. Coming forward in healing can be a very painful thing. As we come forward together, sometimes we accidentally, or, unfortunately, intentionally stand in the way of others struggling to come forward into God’s healing, which can also be very painful. Consider the millions of people seeking healing and wholeness who struggle against the racist legacy of American slavery and legal segregation and discrimination. Consider the millions of young people seeking healing and wholeness as Americans but who have no legal status in this country. Consider the millions of people seeking healing and wholeness without health insurance or adequate insurance. Consider the millions of young people seeking healing and wholeness who naturally desire loving intimacy with someone of the same gender but who struggle with culturally-inflicted shame and hatred and bullying, even to the point of suicide. Consider the millions of couples and many children of those couples seeking healing and wholeness through the equal protection of their relationships under the law according to the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Are we bringing forward those millions in our mutual process of healing? Or are we standing in their way as they try to bring themselves forward?
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