Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 21), August 25, 2013
Isaiah 58:9b-14, Psalm 103:1-8, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In seminary, all prospective pastors have to spend at least a summer as a volunteer chaplain at a hospital or nursing home or prison. It’s part of a formal chaplain training program, and you have to do it at an accredited site with a properly trained supervisor, which is how I ended up doing my chaplain training at Oregon State Hospital. It was the only site close enough to my home for me to comfortably commute. If you’ve ever seen the movie One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest you’ve seen where I worked that summer; that’s the hospital where they filmed the movie.
There were six of us chaplain trainees, that year; four were doing year-long residencies aimed at becoming career chaplains, and two of us were seminary students there only for the summer. On weekdays we were assigned to specific wards, to be with the residents. On Sundays, we led worship for any resident who chose to come to our services, preaching in rotation. And on Monday we would gather, watch the tape of Sunday’s service, and critique the sermon. How well did it address the needs of the residents? Did the preacher have any distracting movements she needed to learn to stop doing? Did the preacher use metaphors and language too complicated for the residents to understand, given how heavily medicated they were?
One week, the Bible text for the day was a healing story; it might have been this one, though I don’t remember for sure, and the student chaplain who preached that day gave a fairly standard sermon about how God heals people. Our supervisor and teacher was a man with almost thirty years of experience as a chaplain under his belt, almost all of it in prisons or mental hospitals. Usually he let us students take the lead in the critique, only intervening if we missed something. Not that day.
“How can you say that God is a healer?” he demanded. “You’ve been here almost a year. Have you seen any healing? How many of our patients will ever get better? Many will be here for the rest of their lives, and most of those that become well enough to leave are headed only for an endless cycle of group homes and homelessness. They will never get any better. The best we can hope for is that they learn how to manage their condition and that they have a good support network to help them do it. How can you stand up there and tell them that God is a healer?”
I wonder if the woman from today’s reading would have agreed with him, before her meeting with Jesus. She had suffered for eighteen long years. Eighteen years of pain. Eighteen years of limited mobility. Eighteen years where just getting through the day was a huge struggle. She didn’t seek out Jesus for healing—perhaps she had tried faith healers and been disappointed. She was a faithful member of her synagogue, coming to worship faithfully despite her disability. She had certainly spent hours praying for healing; others had undoubtedly been praying for her. She knew God, but she had never felt God’s healing touch. And then Jesus saw her, one day long after all hope was gone, and called her over to him. “Woman,” he said, “You are set free from your ailment.” He laid his hands on her, and immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. Because she knew, immediately, who had healed her. She knew that in Jesus’ touch, she felt God. And she knew that this was no placebo or temporary fix brought on by adrenaline and wishful thinking; this was the real deal.
But I wonder why Jesus couldn’t have shown up eighteen years earlier, when her troubles began? Why did she have to suffer that long? I wonder why those patients at the Oregon State Hospital had to suffer for so long, too; because the chaplain was right: only a miracle will cure them, and miracles sometimes seem thin on the ground. I have seen people suffer from all kinds of illnesses and injuries, and for many of those people there was no healing in this life. I have prayed with people for strength to endure what can’t and won’t be healed. Why? Why is there suffering in the world, and how can we call God a healer when we look around us and see so many people—including good and faithful Christians—suffering from conditions that will only ever get worse?
There are no easy answers. And the people who try to give easy, simple answers to this question usually only do so by ignoring reality, or by blaming the victims. As long as we humans have lived in this broken, sinful world there has been pain and death. Bad things happen to good people. People suffer through no fault of their own; we humans hurt one another all the time, sometimes without even meaning to. And sometimes bad things just happen that are nobody’s fault. The world is broken by sin and death and pain, and so are we.
I think it’s important to look at when Jesus healed this woman. He was on his way to Jerusalem to be killed. He knew that the world was broken, and he knew intimately the pain and suffering of the world, and he knew the pain he was about to suffer. Jesus knew that the world needed more than quick fixes, more than temporary band-aids, more than just a miracle worker with a large group of fans. The world needed a savior. The world needed all people and all of creation to be healed. The world needed God’s kingdom to come.
So as he went on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus knew he was going to his own death, and he knew that through that death God’s kingdom would begin to break into the world. As he was travelling, he taught people about what God’s kingdom will be like, and the kinds of things and people that would be welcomed into the kingdom and the kind who would have trouble. And in the middle of his teaching, he sees a woman in need of healing. He calls her over and heals her. In God’s kingdom, there will be no suffering; there will be no pain. So when he heals this woman, in the midst of his teaching about what God’s kingdom will be like, he’s showing people what the kingdom looks like. When that woman was healed, she had a foretaste of what God’s kingdom would be like.
The people watching Jesus, however, missed the point. The local preacher started grumbling that Jesus hadn’t healed her in the proper way. Surely, someone teaching about God’s kingdom would know how to do things the way they should be done; yes, the miracle was wonderful, but couldn’t Jesus have done it on the proper day? He had a choice between compassion and the rules, and he chose the rules. Instead of sharing the joy at the sign of God’s presence in the healing, he shook his head and frowned.
Jesus rebuked him. The rules don’t exist for their own sake. God gave us the Commandments to help us live better lives. As people broken by sin, living in a sinful world, we sometimes need guidance in how to build relationships with God and one another. The commandments are guidelines for how to love one another—that’s why Jesus summed them up by telling us to love God and to love one another. They are to help us live the kind of life that is a foretaste of life in God’s kingdom. In God’s kingdom, there will be time to worship and rejoice, time to relax and rest. So we should take time to worship and rejoice, to relax and rest. And in God’s kingdom, there will be no pain and no suffering, so when we see pain and suffering, we should do what we can to alleviate it and heal the brokenness that causes it. Just as Jesus did, when he saw the woman who had been bent over for eighteen years.
To the best of my knowledge, nobody here can heal a person with a touch and a word, as Jesus could. And there are people who have waited as long as she has for healing—even longer! But there are things we can and should do to help one another, to spread what healing we can. Sometimes, even the best we can do doesn’t feel like much. Sometimes, the knowledge that even the deepest hurts will be healed when Christ comes again is cold comfort indeed. I don’t know when Christ will come; I don’t know why people suffer. But I have seen healing and hope even in the midst of pain. I have seen people for whom the only healing will be in the life to come, but I have also seen God work miracles of healing through ordinary people, be they doctors and nurses or family and friends. I have seen the comfort of ordinary touches sustain the souls and hearts of people suffering from deadly diseases. Such healing is only a foretaste of what will be in God’s kingdom, and we are called to spread that healing until God’s kingdom comes. We are the ones sent out into the world to be God’s hands and feet, to heal one another as best we can and proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom.