When Healing Hurts
by Louise Westfall
Four months ago I had hip replacement surgery. I’m so grateful for the medical care that brought such pain relief and restoration of mobility. I know one of you snorted in disbelief back when Rev. Tim prayed for a speedy recovery so I could climb a Fourteener this summer, but I know that mountain hiking is once again in my near future. The surgery designed to heal pain is not entirely without it, however. Meds were required for a few days, there were restrictions on certain movements, and lots of walking and physical rehab after that. But I’m not one to complain–and especially after several of you reminded me that former pastor’s wife Sue Wilcox had both her hips done at the same time!
Make no mistake about it: my healing came about by way of medical science and orthopedic skill. But I also believe it was helped through the caring of this community: Thank you for praying for me … and bringing a meal, or sending a note or simply giving me space to recover. You were following the example of Jesus.
Jesus was a healer. Fully one-third of the New Testament accounts of his earthly ministry describe his healing power over illness and disease, injury and disability. Along with his strong preaching, Jesus’ ability to heal people drew crowds to him and respect for his spiritual authority exercised with deep compassion.
Our morning text is one of these accounts. But before we read it, a little context may help us hear God’s word more compellingly. In those ancient times, people experienced illnesses of all kinds as the consequence of demon possession. They did not understand the etiological origins of disease, and were even less knowledgeable than we are about mental illness. Also, a warning that the text includes injury to animals, is not PETA-approved, and may be offensive to some listeners. With those disclaimers, a reading from the good news according to Luke in the eighth chapter, readings verses 26-39. Hear God’s Word to the places in our lives–body, mind, spirit, and community–that need healing. [Luke 8:26-39]
Drama of talking demons notwithstanding, did you notice some of the similarities with the progression of illness even today? This poor man is isolated from supportive community; he’s in great pain and alone in that suffering; and he has no control over the disease’s “possession” of him. The need to quarantine during Covid infection is an obvious parallel, but I’ve also heard people with a visible disability talk about the ways people avoid “seeing” them. Sometimes advanced cancer and treatment so ravage the body that even friends can’t muster the courage to visit bedside. Some mental illnesses grip a person so tightly that they become a danger to themselves or others and must be isolated and protected from self-harm. Our nation’s shameful health insurance disparities cause some to delay or avoid seeking medical care because they cannot afford it. The gap between the haves and the have nots has resulted in a stratified society where interaction across the strata is rare and we occupy our “bubbles” as comfortably as we can. Politicians on both sides of the aisle speak of our “broken” society, and there’s plenty of evidence for that.
We need healing, friends. Individually. As a church. As a nation. As citizens of a world increasingly threatened by environmental degradation. And here’s the thing. We worship and serve the One who is “healer of our every ill.” Notice that’s not quite the same as “curer of our every disease.” In fact, the word used in the text translated “healed” means more than release from illness; it’s bigger than that, referring more to “being made whole.” For the man from Gerasenes, that meant freedom from the chains of sickness and the literal restraints placed on him; a recovery of his right mind and restoration to his home and community. (Yeah, it’s problematic that the demons were sent into the swine and destroyed; but that’s the way the pre-scientific writer “closed the loop” on any notion that the demonic powers prevailed)
... there is no power greater than God's to love us into wholeness.
With a word from Jesus, nothing stood between the man and his wholeness. So why do you think his neighbors and fellow citizens reacted as they did? –With such great fear that they ordered the healer away. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to rejoice and set up a clinic for Dr. Jesus to keep up the good work?
Strange as it may sound to our contemporary ears, this text proclaims God’s power over every destructive force that diminishes human flourishing. And here’s the thing my friends: that implies we humans share that God-instilled power too. But just like the people of old, we balk at what challenges our notions of reality; of the status quo; of change that stretches us uncomfortably and even breaks up entrenched practices and systems we’d prefer to leave alone. The devil you know is better than the one you don’t. So don’t go making things change, Jesus; just make me feel better!
To heal the demon of violence ravaging our communities would take concentrated power –from achieving sensible gun legislation to supporting more funding for mental health treatment and research and building a stronger sense of community and shared life. One elementary school teacher spoke passionately against being armed with a gun in her classroom; instead, she wrote, we plan. We review our lockdown procedures and talk about solutions, prevention, and survival … I teach my [students] to hide out of sight. I reward their silence with lollipops. I arm them with love and compassion for each other, and encourage them to play with the lonely child at recess. I teach them to include everyone, and solve problems with words. I teach them to lift each other up, and not tear each other down. [Megan Hart, kindergarten teacher in Boise, Idaho; reprinted in the Denver Post June 13, 2022]
That teacher is a healer, with power beyond her considerable own, to cast out the inhuman demons that threaten the lives and well-being of her children. Of course she can’t do it alone.
And in seeking the gift of healing, neither can we. I am keenly aware of the incredible health insurance offered through the Presbyterian Church to clergy (you are too–because you pay for it as part of my compensation). That coverage allows me access to the best health care professionals and hospitals in the State. But health inequities keep many people (especially people of color) from such resources. We know that our opportunity to lead healthy lives should not depend on our zip code–whether we live in Park Hill or Montbello. I’m grateful for Central’s commitment to address these inequities through our endowed Ver Ploeg fund, established years ago to provide financial assistance for children and families for direct medical care, counseling services, adaptive equipment. What a source of healing this has been and continues to be!
This Biblical story of healing points to some other key convictions. Sometimes, well-meaning church folk have tied healing to the faith of the individual or her family. That’s a demon to banish from our vocabulary and private judgment forever. No. Faith can contribute to healing; it can open a space for a larger view of wholeness beyond cure. It can strengthen the bonds with caring community. It can assure us we are never, ever alone: we have God’s presence and a peace that passes human understanding, with which to face even death. But faith is not the reason we are healed; and lack of faith is not the reason we aren’t.
In the height of the pandemic, some of my colleagues in ministry faced severe pressure from their congregation to re-open their sanctuary for worship as an act of faith in God’s protection against infection. This seemed to others, including Central, a distortion of God’s healing power by ignoring the considered research of the medical community and science that directed otherwise. God is not a good luck charm to ward off rampant virus spread–or any other “bad luck” that happens to humans, sometimes randomly and sometimes through our own flawed choices.
There is nothing, dear friends, that stands between us and our wholeness, personally and as beloved community. Nothing–not fear, not doubt, not wrong-doing, not selfishness, not resignation–there is no power greater than God’s to love us into wholeness. To heal our soul-sickness; to mend the great, gaping tears in the social fabric; to pour out upon us, as Jesus did those first disciples, Peace. Peace I give to you. My peace I give to you. [from John 14]
This morning we are all invited to seek the Divine gift of healing and peace, by coming forward to be anointed with oil, an ancient ritual of blessing. To help us understand the multiple ways God works, I have asked Emily Nease, a medical professional (with a heart overflowing with kindness) to join me in the anointing. Please come forward to either one of us and let us know if you prefer to be anointed on the forehead or an upturned palm. If you cannot leave your seat, please raise a hand and one of us will come to you. If you are watching online, I invite you to place your hand on your heart and simply ask for God’s healing and peace.
Dear friends, God bless you and me with healing, in Jesus’ name, by the power of the Spirit! Amen.