Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, February 8th, 2015
Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-11, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39
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.
There is a difference between healing and curing. And, if you’ve spent much time in hospitals or doctors’ offices, you probably know what I mean. Modern medicine can work miracles of curing: we have machines that can see inside your body and tell doctors exactly what the problem is. We have blood tests that can tell us how your body’s doing. We have surgeries to cut out tumors or fix blocked arteries or replace body parts. We have antibiotics and antivirals to knock out disease. We’ve got physical therapy to help get you back on your feet as quickly as possible. We have chemotherapy and radiation to kill cancer cells. We’ve got vaccines to prevent us from catching deadly diseases in the first place. We’ve got inhalers to manage asthma and other lung conditions. We’ve got drugs to regulate your heart, your kidneys, your thyroid, your lungs. We’ve got drugs to regulate brain chemistry if you have seizures or depression or anxiety or schizophrenia. And, if whatever ails you can’t be fixed, we’ve got all kinds of assistive technology: high-tech wheelchairs that respond to the touch of a finger. Oxygen bottles you can carry with you anywhere. Prosthetic legs good enough to dance or run or play basketball with. I thank God regularly for all those things.
And yet, I speak with people who have been in the hospital for a while, or had any serious or long-term illness, and hear them talk about what it was like, and they say that they felt worst in the hospitals and doctors’ offices and therapy rooms. Not because of how sick they were—in several cases, they were in less pain in the hospital than they were at home, due to medication. But because they felt so isolated. So cut off from life. They felt less than human. They felt like a problem to be fixed, not like a person. Even when they had caring doctors and nurses, when they were well-treated, their time in the medical system made them feel less human. Because our medical system—our whole society!—focuses on curing problems instead of healing. We want something simple, easy, quick, something that restores normalcy right away.
I had to face that tendency in myself when I was doing my chaplain training in seminary. For a summer, I worked as a chaplain at Oregon State Hospital, the mental hospital where they filmed One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest. In the afternoons I would spend my time on various wards, and then the next morning I would sit with my fellow chaplain trainees and discuss our work with our supervisor. We had to regularly do “verbatims” where we reported whole conversations to the group so we could be critiqued and evaluated. Now, the thing was, none of the patients in that hospital were ever going to get cured. They just weren’t. They had serious mental illnesses that they were going to struggle with their entire lives. They might be able to learn to manage their conditions well enough to leave the hospital for a group home, or even their own home, but they weren’t going to get better. Nobody working there—not the doctors or aides or nurses or chaplains—was going to be able to fix anything.
My God, but that was hard to face. Day after day I’d report my conversations with patients back to the group, and day after day they’d point out that I was trying to fix them—I’d focus on little things that I could give advice about, rather than sitting with them and being with them. We were there to pray with them, to honor their struggles, to rejoice in their successes and mourn their failings, to help them build community even in the hospital, to help them know that they were beloved children of God even as they suffered and were cut off from the larger world. We were there, in other words, to help them heal even as they suffered things that could not be cured. And I was focused more on things like résumés and pill organizers. Because those were the easy things to fix. Facing the stuff that couldn’t be fixed—the illnesses that couldn’t be cured, only endured—was hard. And because I wasn’t willing to face that, I left the people on my wards to face it alone.
Healing, you see, is different. Healing is about renewing the body and soul. Healing is about being raised up. It’s about reconnecting with the community. It’s about becoming most deeply yourself, the person God intended you to be. Healing is about our whole lives as God’s children. Curing wounds and fevers can be a part of it, but only a part. In my time as a pastor, I have seen healing occur in deathbeds and funeral homes. I have seen people cured of disease and yet still lost and isolated and broken. Curing is not the same as healing.
Our Gospel is about healing. The Gospel includes both curing and healing. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law had a fever, and he took her by the hand and raised her up—and by the way, that’s the same phrase used about the Resurrection, that Jesus was raised up—and she was healed. She was cured of the fever, and restored to her place in the family and the community. And, immediately, she began to serve them. (Have you known people like that, who get right up out of their sickbeds and hop back to work instead of taking it easy and resting a bit? That’s what she was like.) And the word service—the word that they use in Greek is “diakonia.” If it sounds like a churchy word you’ve heard before, good! It’s the word we get “deacon” from. The deacons are the ones who serve, who teach and serve meals and help with the sacraments and lead. She’s not just restored to her normal daily grind, she’s restored to fellowship and to participation in the ministry of Jesus. She becomes part of the Good News, part of the Gospel, part of the community of God’s people. That’s healing.
And you notice that as Jesus goes through Galilee, he spends a lot of time curing the sick, but he spends a lot of time praying and preaching and talking, too. Because curing people is only one part of the package. Jesus doesn’t just want the fever gone and the broken leg fixed—he wants more than that. He wants to heal us. Not just as individuals, but as a community. As a world. He wants us to be whole. He wants us to be renewed. He wants us to be most deeply ourselves and he wants us to be connected with God and with each other. It’s all connected, the individual cures and the larger healing.
But you may also notice that people came to Jesus mostly for the cures. The short-term fixes. Cast out this demon, fix this broken leg, get rid of this fever. Because, you see, healing is hard work. It means being open to change. It means being open to God. It means, first and foremost, acknowledging that things in your life and community and self are wrong, broken, and that you can’t fix them on your own. It means acknowledging that you need God and you need other people. And it also means accepting that God can heal even those parts of yourself that you think are so broken that nothing can ever make anything better. It means letting go of your fear, and letting go of your self-righteousness and ego. Sometimes, healing means learning to live with what can’t be cured. Sometimes, healing means accepting that things can’t be fixed, and accepting that you are a beloved child of God even still.
And healing also means reaching out to other people. Even the people you don’t want to. It means building community and love and acceptance even with people you don’t like or understand. It means being willing to be honest, even if that means facing the parts of yourself and others that aren’t so nice. There is more of God’s healing in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting than there is in some churches. You see, churches, like hospitals, can also be focused on cures. Quick fixes. Making things look good, putting a happy smiling face on things. After all, if God is here with us, shouldn’t everything be good and happy and cured? AA isn’t like that. In an AA meeting, the first thing everyone does is introduce themselves and acknowledge their brokenness. And out of that brokenness, they support and love one another. Out of that honesty, they build a community that changes lives. They heal, even as addiction continues to take its toll.
But so many churches get focused on fixes and cures. And so, when we come across things that can’t be cured—like death, and grief, and long-term illness, and depression, and addiction, and abuse—we either sweep it under the rug or we try and fix it. “Pray about it,” we say. And sometimes, “can’t you just stop it? Get better?” And sometimes even “maybe you just haven’t been praying hard enough. Maybe your faith isn’t strong enough.” We don’t like facing the hard truths, and so we ignore them, and sometimes in so doing we ignore the people in our midst who are suffering, who need healing most of all. It’s hard to feel helpless. It’s hard to acknowledge that we can’t fix things, that some things just won’t be fixed until Christ comes again. But there can be healing even in the midst of pain, and grief, and illness. There can be love and renewal even in the midst of brokenness. There can be hope in the midst of loss. There can be community even when the world tries to isolate us. And when we reach out—when we comfort people who are sick, and bring food to those who grieve, and are willing to be honest and compassionate with ourselves and others, and be there for people even when there’s no quick fix or easy answer—when we do that, we are part of God’s healing. We are God’s hands in the world.