Healing and Grace

Holy Trinity, Year C, June 23, 2019

Isaiah 65:1-9, Psalm 22:19-28, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The man possessed by the demon had two problems: First and most obviously, the demon.  The demon—or legion of demons—who tormented him and possessed him and led him to hurt himself and prevented him from living any kind of life.  The second problem was the community of people around him, who were more interested in trying to control him and avoid him than they were in trying to help him.

People are afraid of those who are different, especially those who are mentally ill.  This was true in Bible times, and it is still true today.  People with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of crime than to commit crime, but still when we hear of a terrible crime like a mass shooting, we assume the perpetrator must have had a mental illness despite the fact that they’re almost always perfectly sane.  We turn old insane asylums into haunted houses and horror tours, scaring ourselves with stories of the creepy people who were confined there in days past, despite the fact that virtually all of the horrors in such places were done by the doctors and nurses and guards, not the patients themselves.  But it’s easier to lock up or shun people who are different or mentally ill than it is to love and support them.  In general, it’s easier to use other people as scapegoats than to face the dark things in us and our society.

So it should not surprise us that the man possessed by demons in our Gospel reading had lived with a terrible choice: he could be chained up, or he could be homeless, living outside society in the cemetery.  His own people didn’t want to give him any kindness or help.  Either he was bound up like a prisoner, despite having done nothing wrong but be sick, or he was shunned and excluded and left to fend for himself in the graveyard.  Those were his only two options, and both were pretty terrible.  As far as we know, he had never hurt anybody, or done any damage besides breaking the chains they put on him.  And the demon possession would have been horrible enough on its own, but the only things his community did were to make his life more painful than it had to be.

And then Jesus came.  You know, it’s funny, but in the Gospels the people who are most likely to know who Jesus is are the demons?  The religious leaders in society didn’t; even his own disciples only occasionally showed any awareness of who Jesus really was.  But the demons knew, and were terrified.  They were terrified because they knew Jesus would not leave them alone.  They knew Jesus came to heal the people they tormented.  They knew they could not continue on hurting people if Jesus came near.  And so too, this demon was afraid.  And it was right to be afraid of Jesus.

Jesus asked the man’s name and healed him, cast out the demons so that for the first time in years the man’s mind was his own.  He took a bath and got dressed.  He could talk without the demon speaking for him.  He was saved.  Not because he was anything special or good or unique, but because that’s what Jesus does: Jesus saves people from the things that torment us, whether that is demons or sin or illness or injury or hunger or any other force.  Jesus came to bring good news, to release those held captive, to liberate those oppressed, no matter who or what is holding them down.

And the people of the town, the man’s family and neighbors, came and saw what had happened.  They saw him safe, and sane, and whole, and free.  And they did not rejoice.  No, they were afraid.  They were happier with him sick than healthy.  They were afraid of change.  They were afraid to welcome him back among them.  I am sure that at least some of them loved him and were happy, but most of them were not.  Like an alcoholic’s friends who would rather he continues to party than get sober and recover, they liked the dysfunctional and unhealthy patterns they were used to better than a new and better way of living.

In this story, the demons of the Legion are afraid of Jesus because he has the power to cast them out.  The people of the town are also afraid of Jesus because he has the power to cast demons out.  It’s not that they like the demons, but rather that they’re used to them.  They’re used to fearing and being suspicious of the man who had been possessed.  They’re used to being able to do terrible things to him and telling themselves that he deserves it.  They’ve spent years locking him up and abusing him and ignoring him and his needs whenever possible.  They don’t want to have to look him in the eye and account for how they’ve treated him.  They don’t want to welcome him back and make him part of the community.  They don’t want to change.  And so instead of letting Jesus cast out their sins as he cast out the demons, instead of allowing him to heal them of their pride and fear and resentment and selfishness as he healed the man of his demon, they attack Jesus.  They cast him out.  They don’t want to change, even if that change is for the better.  They are more comfortable with their sins and their demons than they are with being healed and saved.  And so they try to kill Jesus.

This is another thing that hasn’t changed since Jesus’ day.  We still do not want to change even when that change would be better for us.  We would, by and large, rather stay in familiar-but-unhealthy patterns than open ourselves to the saving and healing power of Christ in our lives.  And most of the time, we don’t even acknowledge that’s what we’re doing.  Do you think the people of that village were honest with themselves about why they drove Jesus out?  I don’t.  I bet they made up all kinds of reasons.  Maybe some of them convinced themselves that Jesus was an evil magician, and that’s why he had power over the demon.  Maybe some of them convinced themselves they were mad about the money lost by the pigs’ owners.  Maybe some of them convinced themselves that Jesus came to town to destroy their crops and livestock and getting rid of the demon was just a side effect.  Maybe some of them convinced themselves of other reasons I haven’t thought of.  But the fact is, it was seeing the man—their relative, their neighbor, a man whom they should have loved and cared for but chained up instead—that made them fear Jesus.  And so they cast Jesus out rather than letting him heal them, too.

Some people, reading Bible stories like this one, argue about whether the demon was a literal evil spirit or just some form of mental illness.  I don’t know that it matters.  What matters is this: there are things in us that hurt, there are things that destroy the good life God meant for us.  And sometimes those things are present in individual people, like in that man, and sometimes those things are present in communities, like in the community that did not want him to be healed.  And whether those things that hurt us are demons or illness or social forces or our own habits, God has power over them and can heal them.

Some of that healing takes place in the here-and-now.  Sometimes miracles happen; sometimes God works through medical professionals and therapists and medication.  Sometimes forgiveness and spiritual healing take place even where we think nothing good is possible.  But sometimes we have to wait.  Miracles don’t happen on command; they don’t happen every time we want them.  If so, the community would have been healed of their fear and anger instead of casting Jesus out.  I don’t know why God doesn’t heal every wound in this world right now with a snap of his fingers.  But I do know this: there will come a time when Christ will come again, and the dead will be raised, and all the living and the dead will be judged, and everyone and everything will be healed and made whole, and God will wipe away every tear from every eye.

I don’t know when that will happen, but I have faith that it will happen.  I have faith that even when healing is not possible in this life, it will come in the next, and God’s power will triumph even where hope seems futile.  And I also have faith that God put us here for a reason.  I have faith that God is working in us here and now, that even though there are times when healing is not possible now, God is at work.  Even though there are times when we reject Jesus, God is still at work.  Even though we turn away from God’s gift of healing, even though we so often prefer the fearful life we are used to over the grace-filled life of freedom God offers, God keeps coming to us and offering healing and forgiveness.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

On Unclean Spirits

Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, Year B, January 28, 2018

Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1, Mark 1:21-28

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, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

So, raise your hand if you’ve ever seen a real exorcism.  Not one in the movies or other fictional story, a real, live exorcism.  Nobody here has seen one.  Okay, raise your hand if you’ve ever seen someone who was possessed by a demon or unclean spirit.  And, again, nobody including me has seen someone who was possessed by a demon.  I mean, I’ve seen TV shows about demons and such, Supernatural and Sleepy Hollow and such, but I’ve never seen one in real life.  And most real-life cases I know of where someone has thought that they or someone else was possessed by a demon, the real cause turns out to be mental illness, or something like that, instead.  No exorcisms necessary, just a good therapist, the appropriate medication, and understanding and support from family and friends.  That’s why a lot of people today look at many of the exorcisms that Jesus performs and assume that what really happened was that the person was mentally ill, and Jesus healed them.  Still a miracle far beyond anything modern medicine can even dream about, but not an exorcism.

There’s two problems with that.  The first is that it’s not taking the witness of the Bible seriously—nor the witness of our ancestors in the faith, nor the witness of our Christian brothers and sisters of other cultures, who often tell of encountering demons.  And, I mean, we believe in spirits.  It’s one of the core parts of our faith that we confess every Sunday: we believe in the Holy Spirit of God, one person of the trinity.  That is absolutely not up for debate.  And if there’s a Holy Spirit, it’s not a big leap from that to wondering if there might be other spirits, too.  Un-holy ones.  Or, as the spirit in today’s lesson is called, “unclean” ones.  Ones that don’t come from God, and don’t lead us closer to God, but rather lead us away.

Consider the liturgy we use in baptism.  It’s ancient.  Christians have been using that same liturgy since the very beginning of Christianity.  Every generation puts their own spin on it, modifying it to fit their times, but the core of it is the same.  Which is why so many churches from different traditions have baptismal rites that sound very similar, even if nothing in the rest of the worship service does.  And part of that liturgy is to renounce all the evil spirits.  “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?”  If the baptized is old enough to speak for themselves, they say it.  If they’re too young, their parents say it for them, and when they are confirmed, they will renounce other spirits as part of the Confirmation rite.  There would be no need to pointedly renounce evil spirits if they weren’t floating around.  We may not talk about unclean spirits much, but that doesn’t mean we ignore the possibility they’re out there.

There’s a Christian spiritual practice called Lectio Divina, or “divine reading,” where you pick a Bible passage and meditate on it.  But before you start meditating, you pray.  And one of my professors in seminary was very adamant that you had to specify, in that prayer, that you were asking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit and for God to protect you from other spirits, because you don’t want to be opening yourself to just any old spirit that might be wandering by.  You want to open to the Holy Spirit.  Given all of these aspects of Christian worship and devotion that deal with spirits other than the Holy Spirit, I don’t want to assume that any “unclean spirit” or “demon” in the Bible is merely a mental illness described by people who don’t know what it is.  I mean, it may be, but we don’t know.

The other problem with assuming that all Biblical exorcisms are actually healings of mental illness is that this guy is very different from the other people possessed by spirits in the Bible.  See, I don’t think anybody knew he had an unclean spirit until Jesus cast it out of him.  This guy seems like a normal guy.  He’s going about his ordinary life just like everyone else in the village, and unclean spirit or not he’s in the synagogue, the place of worship.  He’s a member of the congregation.  Other people with “unclean spirits”—the ones who are visibly different, the ones who act like they have schizophrenia or other mental illness—they’re excluded, shoved out of the community, ignored, pushed aside.  This guy isn’t.  So his friends and family probably think he’s fine.  They probably think he’s normal, ordinary.  He’s got an unclean spirit so fully in control of him that it can speak through his mouth, and there he is, in the middle of the congregation, and not one person has noticed.  Except Jesus.

I wonder what else the unclean spirit was saying with that man’s voice.  I mean, it can’t have been outright blasphemy; these people know the Scriptures, they know the traditional interpretations, if this guy tried outright heresy they would have noticed.  But there have always been people who twisted Scripture to fit their own desires.  For example, the Bible repeatedly tells us that God is love, that the deepest core of God’s character is that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  From the beginning of Genesis right on through to the last page of Scripture, we are told that God’s deepest concern is for the kind of justice where even the weakest person, even the outcast, receives good treatment, and the kind of mercy that works to reconcile people with God and with one another.  But people have always taken pieces of Scripture out of that context and used them to rationalize unjust and unmerciful treatment, too harsh on the people they don’t like and too lenient of themselves.  Maybe that’s the sort of thing the unclean spirit was saying with that man’s voice.

Or maybe I’m overthinking it.  Maybe the unclean spirit didn’t say anything spiritual at all.  Maybe it just sort of was there, stirring the pot.  You know the type.  The ones who add to the drama of any situation so that it’s harder to find a good solution because everyone’s so upset they can’t think straight.  Or maybe the unclean spirit was the type to whisper poison in peoples’ ears, the sort of comment that sound innocuous on the surface but always has an edge that hurts.  Someone like that can do a lot of damage, cutting people down and making them suspicious of one another.  Or maybe the unclean spirit was the self-righteous type, filling the man full of the conviction that he was always right and therefore anyone who disagreed was wrong and the enemy, so he could treat them accordingly.  If you think about it, there are a lot of ways an unclean spirit could have done serious damage not just to the person it possessed but to the whole community, if it managed to go undetected as this one evidently had.

I wonder what the man who was possessed thought.  I wonder if he felt like a prisoner in his own body, helpless to stop the spirit from acting.  But even more, I wonder if he even knew.  If he just listened to the voice of that unclean spirit influence him and thought, “that sounds like a pretty good idea I just had.”  And that may be the scariest thing of all.

Thank God Jesus was there to free him and cast out the unclean spirit.  But it raises the question: what about unclean spirits here, now, today?  I mean, Jesus isn’t walking around physically in the flesh any more.  He’s not just going to walk I into one of our churches and command an unclean spirit to leave.  And yet, we are not alone.  We don’t face spirits or demons—whether actual entities or mental illness—alone, for God is with us.  In our baptisms, we are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit, and that is the deepest reality of our lives.  Even if other spirits trouble us, they cannot stand forever against the power of our Lord and Savior.  We renounce the powers of the devil and of all unclean spirits, and we are right to do so, because they can do a lot of damage.  But it is the power of the Holy Spirit that gives that renunciation a force greater than we could ever manage on our own.  I don’t know what other sorts of spirits are out there, nor how often we might encounter them.  But I know this, for certain and sure: the Holy Spirit is greater than they could ever hope to imagine, and the Holy Spirit is active in us and among us.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The People We Don’t See

Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 18C, August 21st, 2016

Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 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.

There are a lot of people in America today who don’t go to church, or go to church only rarely.  But, if you sort them all out by categories and rank them from highest church attendance to lowest church attendance, one group is squarely at the bottom, with the lowest church attendance of any demographic: people with disabilities.  Now, there are a lot of reasons for it—for one thing, even today most churches are not handicap accessible, or only barely qualify—but part of it is stories like our Gospel reading today, or at least the way we normally read them.

One of the reasons for this is obvious.  After all, Jesus may have healed this one woman crippled for eighteen years, but there are a lot of people out there today with disabilities that bad or worse, who’ve dealt with their condition for longer.  Why, many of them wonder, have they not received that healing?  Why have miracles happened for other people, but not for them?  We believe that God heals all ills, but sometimes—a lot of times—that healing does not happen in this life.  Instead, it will happen when Christ comes again and the dead are resurrected and all of creation is remade in the good, whole, sinless way it was meant to be.  And that’s great, it’s certainly better than nothing … but it doesn’t change the pain and suffering that people experience in the here and now.  And so people who suffer hear stories like this and ask, “why not me?” and turn away from a God they believe has failed them.

But he other reason is because our focus on miracles of healing means that we don’t really see them, or welcome them into the community.  Sure, we as a community just love to hear the inspirational stories about disability, the nice, neatly packaged things that make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside and carry messages we approve of, like “if they can do it, so can I!”  Or “the only disability is a bad attitude!”  As if thinking good thoughts at stairs will turn them into a ramp, or smiling will stop a seizure.  And the way we tell those inspirational stories, it’s all about us.  Our reactions, our inspiration, turning people with disabilities into mere objects to make us feel better about ourselves.  We don’t like to hear about the problems, the ordinary realities of getting through the day—especially not if learning about those problems might require us to change our thoughts and actions to accommodate their needs.  Worse, if their story doesn’t fit the inspirational pattern—if they haven’t been able to pray their disability away—many Christians will think it’s somehow their fault.  If they had stronger faith, a miracle would happen.  If they prayed more, or prayed the right thing, they’d be cured.  If, if, if.

One of the professors I studied with in seminary is legally blind.  He told a story about an encounter he once had with a faith healer, who asked to pray that his blindness might be cured.  The professor agreed.  And so the healer placed his hands on him and prayed.  Nothing happened.  Well, nothing happened to the professor; his sight was not changed.  But the healer grew upset as he tried and tried and tried to heal the blind, and failed.  Normally, he would have taken it as a sign of some failing on the part of the person he was trying to heal—their faith wasn’t strong enough, perhaps.  But he knew that the professor was a good man of deep and abiding faith.  In the end, the blind man ended up comforting and consoling the faith healer.  The faith healer had been so focused on the cure—on trying to make the miracle happen—that he couldn’t see anything else.  He couldn’t truly see the man he was trying to heal; he could only see his disability, and that only as something to be prayed away.

In some ways, he was like the Pharisee from our Gospel reading.  He didn’t see the woman who had been bent over for eighteen years.  He didn’t see her as she was; he only saw her as she fit into his ideas of what ought to be.  He looked at a woman praising God, and saw only a problem.  No work should be done on the Sabbath; healing was work; therefore, the Pharisee believed Jesus was wrong to heal her on the Sabbath and she was wrong to praise God for it.  She was a problem, because she was too visible—too many people saw her cured, too many people saw her rejoicing, and so too many people might be tempted to forget the Sabbath.  The Pharisee didn’t see her, he didn’t see her as a beloved child of God, a daughter of Abraham.  He looked at her and saw a problem.

But you know what?  I wonder if the Pharisee had ever truly seen her in the eighteen years she’d been bent over, either.  Eighteen years.  That’s a long time.  In all that time, had he ever gotten to know her?  Had he ever asked her if there was anything the synagogue could do to help her deal with the effects of her condition—and then really listened?  Had he ever asked her what would make the synagogue’s worship more accessible to her?  Had he ever asked her what support and help she needed to get through her daily life?  Had he ever asked her what she thought about her life?  Had he ever taken the time to make sure she was not excluded because of her differences?  Had he been willing to change things up so that she could be included in the community instead of left on the outside looking in?  Had he ever been a friend to her and her family?  Had he ever been there for her to lean on when things were difficult?  And when there had been times of rejoicing during those years she was bent over, had he ever been there to celebrate with her?  Or had he just ignored her, forgotten about her, except to pity her occasionally, and maybe toss a few coins her way in charity?  I think that if he had ever truly seen her before the miracle, if he had ever recognized her as a child of God and descendant of Abraham, he could not have responded to Jesus’ miracle by treating it as a problem.

Too often, we act like the Pharisee.  We don’t see people with disabilities, not really.  They’re problems to be solved.  Or, better yet, ignored.  If someone is disabled, and needs accommodations to help them get through the day and participate in society, how often do we think that it’s unreasonable to take the time to help?  How often do we discount their needs because they might be faking it?  How often do we look at them and assume we know more than they do about the realities of their lives?  How often do we look at people with disabilities, and see burdens to society instead of children of God?  There was a movie out this summer, Me Before You, that a lot of people absolutely loved.  It was a tearjerker, about a man who becomes disabled and chooses to kill himself, which the movie presents as a good and noble thing.  It’s the kind of thinking behind the assisted suicide movement, which wou1ld rather make it easier for people to kill themselves, instead of doing the hard work to allow people with disabilities to live full and meaningful lives, as part of the larger community.

And even if we avoid the Pharisee’s viewpoint, we as Christians act like the faith healer.  We see people with disabilities as problems to be solved, as things to inspire us and prove the goodness of God.  We see them as opportunities to do a good deed and bask in how nice we are, how faithful we are, instead of seeing them as fellow children of God to be included in God’s family.  We get so caught up in miracle stories and heartwarming narratives, that we have no idea what to do with the real people around us, many of whom never get that miracle in this life and whose lives are far too complicated to fit into that heartwarming Hallmark movie.  And so, even in church, where all people should be welcomed, people with disabilities are still left on the outside looking in.

This whole sermon, I’ve been saying “they” and “them.”  But the truth is, I have a disability; I’m autistic, which is a developmental disability, and I have anxiety, which is a psychological disorder.  Now, my anxiety is relatively mild, as clinical anxiety goes, and I happen to have a subtype of autism called Aspergers which means that when I am well-rested and my anxiety isn’t flaring up, and I’m in a known environment with no surprises, and I know the right social scripts for the occasion, I can pass for normal if I work hard enough.  My disability is often invisible.  It means that I’ve faced less discrimination and stigma than others have, and been able to do a lot of things that others can’t.  But the fact that I can often pass for normal—and thus let those around me forget that I’m different—doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot of extra challenges.  It doesn’t make me a better person or more worthy of being accepted by society than those whose disabilities are more visible.  And it certainly doesn’t mean that I am more of a child of God!  We are all God’s children, whether we have able bodies or disabled ones, whether our brains are neurotypical or not.  We all need community; we all need to love and be loved; we all need support, although some of those supports are more obvious than others.  And that community starts by seeing people—truly seeing us—not as problems or inspirations but as people and children of God.

Jesus saw the woman who had been bent over for eighteen years.  He knew her.  And when he saw her, he healed her.  We can’t work miracles of healing on cue like Jesus did; when they come, they come unexpectedly.  And there are some people with disabilities who don’t need healing; while I would gladly be healed of my anxiety, my autism is a part of who I am that I would never change.  But we can build communities where all of God’s children are known and welcome.  We can build communities where all people receive the support they need to live the full and abundant lives God promises to all his children.  May we learn to do so.

Amen.

The Healing They Didn’t Want

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 12C, June 19th, 2016

1 Kings 19:1-15a, Psalm 42, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

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.

You know what’s interesting to me about our Gospel story?  There are lots of healings in the Gospels, and several other cases of Jesus or his followers casting out demons.  And some of those healings and such take place, as this one, in Gentile communities.  So it’s not the healing of the possessed man that catches my attention.  Nor is it the question of whether the man actually had a demon, or whether it was some form of mental illness that they didn’t understand in those days.  I’m not sure whether or not I believe in demons, but I do absolutely believe that if they exist, Jesus Christ can cast them out; and if it wasn’t a demon, well, Jesus Christ is absolutely capable of healing mental illness.  So while some people get passionate about that question, I’m not one of them.  And some people really feel for those pigs—either horrified that innocent animals were sacrificed, or upset about the financial loss to their owners.  But the people in the story didn’t seem to care about the financial loss, so why should I?

What interests me about this story is the reason the Gerasenes get upset.  They weren’t mad that their pigs had been killed.  They weren’t happy that the man was healed.  They were afraid because he was healed.  They didn’t like it!  You and I, we read this story, and we think, oh, wow, how wonderful!  But the people of the town—the ones who had known this guy all his life, his family and friends—they didn’t think it was wonderful.  They saw the man healed, and they were seized by great fear, and they asked Jesus to leave.  They didn’t want his healing touch among them.  They liked things the way they were, thank you very much.  And if that was a terrible life for the man possessed by a demon, well, they didn’t care.  They were quite willing to chain him down and keep him under guard all the time—and that couldn’t have been easy or cheap.  But that was fine.  They’d pay the cost, whatever it took, no matter how much it hurt him.  But have him healed?  No, that was a problem.  To see him in his right mind, wearing clothes, ready and able to be part of the community?  Uh-uh.  No.  That was frightening.  That, they did not want.  Or, at least, they might have said they wanted it, until they actually saw it right in front of their eyes.

The Gerasene reaction doesn’t surprise me, because I know how the mentally ill and disabled are treated in our own society today.  The most popular option, by far, for how to deal with those who cannot take care of themselves for whatever reason is to lock them up and throw away the key.  We’re kinder and gentler than the Gerasenes were; we lock people up in facilities with comfortable furniture and padded rooms and high doses of sedatives and antipsychotics, instead of binding them with chains and shackles and consigning them to live naked in the wilderness.  But given options that will improve their health and quality of life, we generally choose not to use them, just as the Gerasenes sent Jesus away.  Every study ever done shows that community-based care for the mentally ill and disabled—whether home health, group homes, or other alternative—is both better for people with mental illness and disabilities, and cheaper for the community.  And yet, the only kind of care a lot of people want to fund is institutions that lock people away from the community.  It’s the same with education.  Putting children with disabilities in mainstream classrooms with appropriate support and accommodation so they can succeed is usually better for them.  They learn more, both life skills and educationally, than if they’re off by themselves in a Special Ed classroom.  And the other kids learn to be kind to those who are different.  But there is strong resistance to programs that do that.  Children with disabilities, adults with disabilities, the mentally ill.  We’d rather lock them up away from the rest of the community than have them in our midst.  We’ll pity them and use their stories for our own inspiration, but we don’t actually want to have to see them and deal with the reality of their lives on a daily basis.

I think it’s because we get uncomfortable with things that are different, especially things that remind us how much of our lives isn’t due to our own hard work and what we deserve, but rather to things we can’t control.  We want things to be normal.  We want people to be normal, too.  Because normal is easy.  Normal requires no thought, no special effort.  When everything is “normal,” we can go through our lives quite comfortably without ever once asking any questions which might make us change our minds, hearts, or actions.  But when we allow people who are different into our midst, we have to accommodate their needs, and sometimes change the way we do things.  We have to build relationships with them that might change how we see them, and how we see ourselves.  It’s a lot easier—and a lot safer—to not include them.  To lock them away, chain them up, put them in special programs so we never have to see them or deal with the reality of their lives.

In Gerasa, they chained up the man with a demon.  I don’t know how dangerous the demon was to them—maybe they had no choice.  But I do know that in today’s society, we lock up the mentally ill because we think they’re dangerous, and every time there’s a mass shooting the first question we ask is “were they mentally ill”? This is despite the fact that virtually all mass shootings were committed by men who were perfectly sane, and that the mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of violence than commit it.  We are far more dangerous to them than they are to us … and they are the ones who get locked up.  As a culture, we would rather make mental illness a crime than provide the resources and support they need to live decent lives.

So Jesus healed the man with a demon.  His community had done everything they could to exclude and confine him, and Jesus freed him.  Jesus freed him from the demon, and in doing so he got rid of any justification for them to mistreat that man.  And when the Gerasenes arrived they saw the man healed, clean, dressed, looking “normal,” ready to rejoin the community.  And that made them uncomfortable.  That made them afraid.  That made them want to reject Jesus, send him as far away as he could get.

They didn’t want the man healed, because then they’d have to include him.  This man they’ve chained up for years, this many they drove out of their midst, this man they did terrible things to in the name of protecting themselves … now they’ve got to face him.  They’ve got to deal with him.  Now they have to face what they’ve been doing to him all this time, and ask themselves if it was really necessary or if it was just easier for them to make him a convenient scapegoat and shove him away.  Their lives were comfortable, with him possessed.  Nice.  Predictable.  And now that’s not true anymore.  They would rather have easy certainties and normality than healing.  They would rather have easy certainties and normality than the salvation and life that come through Jesus.  If loving Jesus and hearing his word means accepting someone they have excluded?  Goodbye, Jesus, don’t let the door hit you on the butt on the way out.  And it was probably made worse by the fact that that man—the man they’d excluded and hut, the man they wanted to keep possessed and in chains—was the man Jesus sent to proclaim the Good News to them.    It wasn’t just, oh, sure, he’s not possessed anymore, so he can sit quietly in the back as long as he’s not too loud so we can continue to ignore him.  No, that man had a message to preach, about what he had experienced.  And it was a message they would rather not hear.

How often do we do the same thing?  How often do we blame and exclude those who are different because they make us uncomfortable?  How often do we as a community choose to exclude and demonize people rather than giving them the support and accommodations they need to be able to live whole and happy lives?  I know that for mental illness, most people in North Dakota suffer without ever getting help, and if they do get help, it’s usually not enough.  We don’t fund mental health; we don’t work to make sure we have enough counselors for the size of the population, we don’t make sure our teachers have enough training to spot and deal with problems before a child’s course is set.  And then people turn to drugs and alcohol because it’s the only way they know how to cope.  It’s easier to sit here and shake our heads and wag our fingers, and call the cops when things get out of hand, than it is to provide services and support that might actually bring some healing.

We worship a God who heals.  We worship a God who casts out demons.  We worship a God who comes to bring life, abundant life, abundant life for all—especially those we’d rather ignore or exclude or forget about.  The temptation is always to be like the Gerasenes, closing our eyes to their needs and preferring normality to the possibility of healing and wholeness.  May we, instead, be God’s hands and feet in the world, working towards healing and wholeness for all people.

Amen.

Memorial Day

Second Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 9C, May 29th, 2016

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43, Psalm 96, Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10

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 are not many places in the New Testament where soldiers are mentioned.  It seems appropriate to read one of those passages today, on Memorial Day, the day set aside to remember those who have served their country, and especially those who have died for their country.  There’s just one problem: this soldier, this centurion, like all soldiers mentioned in the New Testament, was the enemy.  He was a Roman, a commander in the army that had conquered Israel and occupied it, imposing heavy taxes that devastated the middle and working classes of the day.  This particular Roman, we are told, built a synagogue, a place of worship, for the local Jewish community.  I hope he did it because he sincerely respected them and God, but he may just have done it to make them dependent on him—a common Roman tactic.  And, even if the centurion did indeed believe in God, and that’s why he built the synagogue, he was part of the occupying army that was building temples to pagan gods on Jewish soil, and pressuring Jews to worship them.  Armies can defend and protect, but armies can also do terrible things.  It all depends on who’s giving their orders—who’s in charge.  Who has the authority.

The centurion, like all those who serve their nation in the military then or now, understood authority.  We don’t know the depth of his faith, whether he had learned from the Jews around him to believe only in the Lord our God, or if he had just accepted this Yahweh as an addition to the many so-called gods that he and all the Romans worshiped.  We don’t know if he was a good man or a bad one.  We don’t know how he treated his men, or his family, or his slaves.  We don’t know if the faith he had that drove him to seek out Jesus was the beginning of a lifelong commitment or just a temporary thing.  We don’t know if he was worthy of God’s healing, and we know even less about the slave he wanted Jesus to heal.

The first delegation the centurion sent to Jesus was very concerned with whether or not he was worthy to have his request granted—they had a list of good deeds he had done that should earn him at least some of God’s favor.  But the centurion’s own words show that he was concerned with his own worthiness, but rather with Jesus’ power.  He didn’t say, “hey, I’m such a great guy, I’ve done all this stuff for your God, so therefore you should help me.”  He said, “My servant needs help, and you have the power to do it.”  And Jesus was amazed!  This was true faith.  It wasn’t about trying to bargain with God, it wasn’t about any kind of quid pro quo, it was about recognizing where true power and authority lies.  The greatest authority in the world belongs to God; it’s not in our hands.  God gives gifts and blessings not because we earn them, but because they are in his power to give.  All good things come from God, and the centurion recognized this.  And that was the faith that amazed Jesus.

The centurion was a foreigner, an outsider, a pagan, a member of the army that had invaded and conquered Israel.  Yet he was still a child of God.  Jesus did not come for one tribe or nation, but for all people.  And he has authority not just over one tribe or nation, but over all people—including the centurion and his slave.  And the centurion recognized this.  He recognized that his worthiness wasn’t the issue—only God’s power and grace.  And Jesus was amazed at his faith, and the slave was healed.

Today is Memorial Day.  We are here to honor and commemorate those soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and Coast Guardsmen who died in the service of their country.  They, too, were men and women set under authority, just as the centurion was.  And we do not honor them because they were perfect or more worthy of remembrance than other people.  Some of them were good, some bad.  We honor them because of their faithfulness to their country, and we honor them because we were the ones who sent them out to fight and die on our behalf.  In the centurion’s case, the authority was Caesar’s; in the case of our service men and women today, because the United States is a democracy, the authority is the people of the United States—you and me.  We are the ones who choose the people—presidents and congresspeople—who decide when and where to send them out to fight and die.  As the centurion recognized, the ultimate authority is God’s, but we the people are the ones who wield that authority, and choose others to wield it on our behalf.  Many men and women have fought and died that we might have that freedom.

With authority comes responsibility, to God and to our servicemen and women.  We have a responsibility to God, to use his authority in ways that he would have us do.  It is important to remember that all people in the world, both here and abroad, are beloved children of God, whether they are Christians or not.  God created them; God loves them; God yearns for their salvation.  Even when they are the enemies of our country—just as the centurion was an enemy of Israel.  And our service-men and women, too, are beloved children of God, who have chosen to put themselves in harms’ way for our safety.  They make many sacrifices, some the ultimate sacrifice.  The authority we have would not be possible without their sacrifices.  We should not take it lightly, or use it without considering the consequences.  No one should be called to make such sacrifices unless there truly is no other choice.

There are times, in this sinful world, where war is necessary to protect and defend the innocent from the evils in the world.  America has fought wars that were good and necessary.  But America has also fought wars that were neither good nor necessary.  It is our responsibility as God’s people, as fellow children of God with all humanity, to use the authority given to us as Americans in godly ways: in the spreading of peace and healing whenever possible, reserving war for times when it is truly necessary.  War has a cost, and we honor those who paid that cost on our behalf.

We have a duty both to God and to our servicemen and women and to the world.  And that duty is to support and care.  We worship a god of healing.  This story we just read is not just a story about faith and authority, it is also a story about healing and restoration.  We are called to bring God’s love and healing to all the world … but we have an especial responsibility to bring love and healing to those who sacrificed on our behalf.  This can be physical healing, but spiritual and emotional healing, as well.  We act as God’s healing hands in the world when we support the families who lost loved ones in their service, taking care of them in their grief.  We act as God’s healing hands in the world when we are there for our veterans—not just on special days like Memorial Day and Veterans Day, but consistently and regularly.  Many veterans who return from war report feeling isolated and alone: lots of people want to shake their hand and thank them for their service, but don’t want to listen to the troubles they have adjusting to civilian life again, or the troubles they have dealing with their experiences.  It can be hard to listen to their stories and their struggles but if we send them out to fight and risk their lives, we owe them at least that much.  As God’s people we have a responsibility to bring healing to the world, but this responsibility is even greater when it comes to those whom we have asked to sacrifice on our behalf.

There will come a day when God’s plan of peace and justice and love for all people will come to fruition.  There will come a day when there is no more war, no more hate, no more violence, and no more sorrow.  On that day, Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will come here to earth.  All will see and know that he is the true authority.  The dead will rise, and all people will see God’s salvation.  On that day, all will be healed.  We wait in hope for that day of resurrection.  While we wait, may we always use our authority wisely, may we always remember those who gave their lives that we might be free, and may we always care for those who have served.

Amen.

What kind of a Messiah are we looking for?

Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 17th, 2016

Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

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.

People gathered around Jesus and asked him, “How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  Now, the thing is, this is half-way through the Gospel of John.  Jesus has already spent ten chapters teaching, preaching, and giving miraculous signs that he is the Messiah, the Son of God.  And there are, by this point, PLENTY of people who have recognized who Jesus is.  It’s not like it’s this hidden, secret thing.  Jesus has not been hiding his light under a bushel.  And he’s in the Temple, right?  The home of the Jewish faith.  If anyone in the world could recognize the Messiah, the chosen anointed king of the God of the Jews, it should be these people here.  And they’ve figured out he’s something special—that’s why they’re asking the question—but they’re still on the fence.  Still wondering.

Now, there were probably a couple of reasons for that.  A couple of reasons why they couldn’t bring themselves to accept that Jesus was the Messiah, the Good Shepherd, the anointed king of David’s house sent to save them.  And the first reason was simply that Jesus was not the first claimant to come along.  There had been, by that point, several Jewish leaders who claimed to be the long-awaited Messiah.  Some of them had had pretty good evidence to back them up, at least in the short term, and still ended up disappointing everyone by not actually being the Messiah.  We forget, now, but in the couple of centuries around the time of Jesus’ life there were half-a-dozen men who claimed to be the Messiah—and probably at least that many more that are lost to history.  Reason enough for people to be a little skeptical at the latest wandering holy man.

The other big reason for them to be skeptical, though, is that Jesus … didn’t look that much like a Messiah.  I mean, by this point, they’d had almost a thousand years to build up a picture of what the Messiah would look like.  And the greatest thing they knew about him was that he was to be David’s descendent.  So they expected him to be, well, like King David.  A king, a great warrior who could slay the giant.  David slew Goliath and defeated the Philistines, the great enemy of his day; they expected the Messiah to slay the legions and defeat Rome, the great enemy of their day.  It was a reasonable assumption.  After all, the Messiah did come to slay the great enemy … except on a rather larger scale than they were expecting.  The great enemy that the Messiah came to slay was death, the enemy of all living things that ever have been or ever will be, not just the empire that was the current enemy du jour.  They had their eyes firmly on their current political problems, and wanted God to fix them.  They were faithful people, who believed that since they were faithful people, all the things they were concerned with must also be God’s concern.  They assumed that God thought the same way they did; they assumed that God agreed with them.  And so they assumed that the Messiah would kill their enemies, help them and their friends, and establish the kind of earthly kingdom they most wanted to see.  But God had his eyes firmly fixed on the far greater problems facing all of creation.  It’s not that God didn’t care that the Romans were oppressing them; it’s just that God was trying to save the universe, not limiting himself to a small group of people in one place and time.

But that was not what Jesus’ contemporaries wanted to hear.  Sure, they hated death, who doesn’t?  But it never even occurred to them that the destruction of death could be on the menu.  In any case, the empire that currently had its boot on their neck was a far more immediate problem for them.  And because they were concentrating on that problem, they assumed that God must be too.  They saw their immediate problem, but couldn’t see beyond it.  And so here’s this Jesus fellow, obviously some sort of holy man.  And he went around preaching and teaching, which the Messiah was supposed to do; he went around talking about the Kingdom of God, which the Messiah was definitely supposed to do, because after all, wasn’t Israel God’s Kingdom?  And as for heavenly signs, well, between miraculous feedings and healings and whatnot, this Jesus fellow obviously had signs of God’s favor.  And he drew crowds, a very promising thing for someone who is going to have to start raising an army pretty soon if he’s going to start taking on the Roman legions.  Except … he’s not raising an army.  He’s not even trying to.  He’s just continuing to teach and preach and heal and feed.  You can see why they’re a bit confused.  “Tell us plainly!” they say.  “Are you the Messiah, or not?”  In other words, are you the political and military leader we think God is going to send us who’s going to solve our immediate political and military problems?

You can see why Jesus doesn’t give them a straight answer.  Because yes, he is the Messiah!  But he’s not the Messiah they’re expecting.  If he says “yes,” straight up and unambiguous, they’re going to assume he fits neatly into the little box in their heads marked “Messiah.”  They’ll probably start buying weapons and recruiting soldiers for the army they assume he’s going to need.  And they’ll go back and interpret everything he’s ever said in light of “how will this help us beat the Romans.”  Which will be completely missing the point.  I mean, they’re already missing the point, but they will miss the point even more if they get the straight answer they want.  So instead Jesus continues to talk in metaphor and tells them to look at what he’s done and judge by that.  And, by the way, by this point the middle east had been using the “shepherd” metaphor to describe kings in general for centuries.  It’s kind of like if we asked someone if he were the President, and he started soliloquizing about what it means to be Commander in Chief.  It’s pretty much answering the question—but it’s sidestepping it at the same time.  You can see why they were annoyed with him—why wouldn’t he just tell them what they wanted to hear?  And if he wasn’t the Messiah, if he wasn’t going to free them from the Romans, why was he taking up their time?

We don’t assume that Jesus is going to save us from the Romans—in fact, the Roman Empire has been gone for a long time, which the people of Jesus’ day would have been shocked about—but we’re just as likely to put Jesus and his message into a nice neat box in our heads and assume that we know what it means that he is our Savior and Lord.  We tend to assume we know what he wants; we tend to assume that our goals are his goals; we tend to try and fit him into our view of the world, rather than conforming our minds and our lives to him.  But if you’ve been sitting here shaking your heads at those crazy people in Jesus’ day who assumed that getting rid of the Roman Empire was God’s greatest worry in the world, maybe you should take a look at the things we tend to assume are God’s greatest worries in the world today.

If you ask the average American Christian what problems they think God is worried about in the world today, they would throw out a lot of different answers.  But we’re like those Jews who questioned Jesus because a lot of those problems are based more on our own immediate worries than on the true scope of God’s saving power.  Like the ancient Jews, we tend to assume that because we are faithful followers of God, God agrees with us.  We tend to try to fit God into our preconceived notions of what God should be like rather than let God shape our hearts and minds.  We focus on changing morals, or our worries about America’s future, or our worries about terrorists and other foreign enemies, our or worries about the future of church institutions—buildings, denominational structures, that sort of thing.

And God cares about those things, of course.  But, just like the military might of the Roman Empire, these things are not necessarily God’s primary concern.  Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  He came to destroy death so that we—and all people, all of creation—might live.  The people in the Temple asked him if he was the Messiah, and he told them to look at the works he had done in his Father’s name, and that would answer their question.  It forced them to look beyond their preconceptions to see what God was actually doing in them and among them.  Because while Jesus’ mission and his ultimate work, his death and resurrection, was great beyond their imagining, the seeds he was planting were often too humble for their notice.  This is what Jesus did in our Father’s name: he brought forgiveness where there was sin and separation.  He brought love where there was hate.  He brought healing where there was illness.  He brought food where there was hunger.  He brought wisdom where there was ignorance and confusion.  He brought life where there was death, and he brought it abundantly.

We can’t fight the great battle that Jesus fought in his death and resurrection.  We don’t have to; Jesus has done it for us.  But we can participate in the work that supports it in our world today.  We can work for forgiveness and understanding and love.  We can work for healing, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.  We can feed the hungry.  We can bring life, in a thousand different ways, great and small.  And we can trust that God, who created the world, who saves us from the great enemy which is death, will lead us in his path.

Amen

The Snake Problem

Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B, March 15th, 2015

Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

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.

When people ask for God to save them, I doubt they have the serpent on a pole in mind. Put yourself in the Israelites shoes. You’re out camping in the wilderness, with your whole family, and you can’t just pack it out and go home because you have no home but the one you’re travelling towards. And then, all of a sudden, there are snakes. LOTS OF SNAKES. Everywhere around. You can’t avoid them. You can’t get away from them. And they’re poisonous! If they bite you, you die. What would you pray to God for? Probably to take the snakes away. Right? You would want them gone. And, if that wasn’t possible, you would pray to God that they wouldn’t bite you. First choice, no snakes. Second choice, snakes that don’t bite.

And that’s not what God did. Instead of smiting the snakes, vanishing them, or pulling their fangs, God arranged a cure for the poison. An anti-venom. Put a bronze snake up on a pole, and look at the snake, and it will heal you after a snake bites you. I read this lesson and I asked myself, “couldn’t God have just prevented the snakes from biting them in the first place?”

That’s a question that comes up often. Whenever someone gets sick, whenever someone gets hurt, we pray for healing, and we wonder, why couldn’t God have prevented it before it happened? Wouldn’t prevention be easier and cheaper than a cure? All this evil and violence and sin and brokenness in the world—why can’t God just make it go away? Why can’t God get rid of the snakes?

The problem is, of course, that all too often the snakes are us. We human beings cause so much hurt in the world, as individuals and as societies. We hurt one another. We act selfishly. We are broken with sin and death, and we spread that brokenness around. We sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. We hurt others and ourselves through what we do and through what we leave undone. We don’t always see the consequences of our words and actions—in fact, humans tend to be pretty good at ignoring them—but they can be huge. In the case of the Israelites, their poisonous words came back to haunt them in the poison of the serpents. But it wasn’t only the ones who had been complaining who bore the brunt of the snake attacks. No. The whole community was affected. It’s like that with us, too: the people whose lives are most devastated are often not the ones doing the worst.

In order to prevent evil—in order to keep human beings from screwing up and hurting themselves and each other—God would have to take away our free will. God would have to take away our ability to make choices. Because we choose the wrong thing so often! We choose to spread the poison. We choose to close our eyes to the pain of others. We choose to ignore the way our words and actions affect the people around us and even the people far away. In our first lesson, God could have removed the snakes. But what do you do when the snakes are the people? When everyone is a snake, and everyone is a victim of snakes? Because we are all sinners, and we are all victims of sin.

And if you think I’m exaggerating, think about Jesus’ words in the Gospel lesson about doing things in the dark instead of doing them in the light. What are the things you do or say or think in the darkness—where nobody can see it—instead of the light? What things about yourself do you hide away? What things have you done or said that you sweep under the rug where nobody can see them? I do it, you do it, we all do it. “And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.” Even when we think we want the light, we keep doing things in the dark. We talk about how much we love Christ’s light, and yet we keep doing things under the cover of darkness.

Until Christ comes again—until there is a new heaven and a new earth and we are made whole in Christ, we’re going to keep sinning and being sinned against. We are going to keep choosing the darkness because it’s easier, because everyone else does, because we’re ashamed. While we live in this sinful, broken world, that’s not going to change. We repent, we turn to the light, and pretty soon we slide back into the shadows. Or we talk about the light, but we keep the shadows inside us, hidden away so the world can’t see them. There isn’t a way to take the snakes out without taking us out as well. While we live on this earth, there will always be darkness. When Christ comes again, when we stand before the throne, all our darkness will be washed away. Until then, we’re going to have to live with it.

But that doesn’t mean the snakes win. It doesn’t mean there’s no hope. It doesn’t mean the poison gets the last word. When the people of Israel were bitten by the snakes, and they looked up to that bronze serpent, they were healed. The snakes were still there. The bites and the pain were still there. But the poison was gone. They were saved from death. They weren’t saved from the snakes at that point—that would come later—but the snakes couldn’t kill them, as long as they were looking to the serpent on a pole.

It’s a matter of perspective. Where were they looking? Where was their focus? As long as they stayed focused on the snakes, on their own pain and the poison that was killing them, they died. When they looked up—when they looked for the gift God had given them—the poison was healed. It is so easy to focus on the pain, on the suffering, on the creepy and bad things. But if we do that, we may not be able to see the salvation God gives us. We don’t have a bronze serpent on a pole. We have Christ, crucified for us and resurrected. When we focus on the pain and suffering around us and in our own lives, it’s so easy to lose hope, to drown in it. But when we remember God’s love, when we remember the salvation and grace given to us in Christ Jesus, when we look to Christ, we know that we are not alone, that we have hope, and that there is a love that will not let us go.

Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” God has not abandoned us to the poison and darkness of the world. We look to Christ, hanging on a wooden pole for all the world to see. It was our sins that killed him. We look to his death on a cross as an example and symbol of our sinfulness, just as the people of Israel looked to an example and symbol of the snakes that were killing him. And Christ saves us from the poison of our sins and our darkness, just as the serpent on a pole saved the people of Israel from the poison of the snakes, the poison of their own bitterness. In this life, we still have to live with the consequences of our actions, and all too often we have to live with the consequences of other peoples’ actions, too. The snakes are still here, and they still have the power to bite, even if they can’t kill us any longer.

But unlike the serpent in the wilderness, Jesus’ death on a cross is not a temporary fix, because it’s not the end of the story. Jesus died, but he rose again. And we who look to him are tied to his death and resurrection. Just as he rose, so we too will rise, when he comes again. We will see him, face to face, and we will be made whole and clean so that no darkness or poison will ever be able to get a hold of us again. We’ll choose the light, forever and always, joyfully and freely, and all the pains and hurts that our darkness causes ourselves and one another will be healed. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The Difference Between Healing and Curing

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.

Amen.

Fears and Expectations

Lent 4, (Year A)
March 30, 2014

1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

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.

Today’s lessons don’t seem to have a common thread, at first glance. Sometimes you can see very easily why the church decided to pair certain readings together. But I think there are two things that link the first reading and the Gospel, and those two things are fear and expectations that can get in the way of God’s work.

In the first lesson, the prophet Samuel had strong expectations about what kind of a person God is going to want as the next king. God told Samuel to go and God would tell him who. But when it gets to be time, Samuel isn’t just waiting for instructions from God. He sees Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab. And he thinks to himself, “That’s gotta be the one.” Eliab was the oldest son, he was tall, he was handsome, and he was just the sort of guy people want to see on a throne or leading an army. But no, Eliab wasn’t the one God wanted. God wanted the youngest son, the one who got left behind to take care of the farm while the rest of the family went out, the one who was a cute kid but still the runt of the family. David was not who Samuel was expecting. But God was using different judgment than Samuel was. Samuel was a prophet, but even Samuel needed to learn to listen to God’s desires rather than his own expectations.

The Pharisees in the Gospel lesson also had some pretty strong expectations about what God wanted. They had spent years studying God’s word, trying to figure out the best ways to incorporate it into their daily life. And they had turned those ways into traditions, so that there was only one right way to do things, and if you didn’t follow those ways, well, then, you weren’t following God’s Word. There was only one way to honor the Sabbath, for example; you went to worship and you studied God’s word and did nothing else all day but rest. Healing is work—just ask any doctor or nurse. So to the Pharisees, even doing something good, like healing someone, wasn’t honoring the Sabbath. Then along comes Jesus, and he heals a blind man on the Sabbath. Giving someone their sight is a good thing! And in those days, without things like cataract surgery, giving sight to the blind was something only God could do. But they thought that God wouldn’t work on a Sabbath, so therefore it couldn’t be an act of God. This gave them quite a dilemma: if it wasn’t an act of God, what was it? That’s why they spent twenty-five verses trying to figure out who Jesus is and what happened to the man born blind. Their expectations of who God is and what God was doing got in the way of seeing what God was actually doing among them.

But why did they cling so hard to their expectations? Why didn’t anyone in that community say, “Wow, I guess we must be wrong—maybe this is a sign from God that we need to rethink some things”? I think it was because they were afraid. There was a lot of conflict in Jesus’ day, and a lot of change. The Jews were pawns in a larger world. They were a conquered people, subject to the Romans, and the Romans made things a lot easier for people who followed Roman ways instead of Jewish ones. And charismatic leaders like Jesus kept popping up, each with their own spin on how Jews ought to live and worship. Other people called for rebellion against the Roman overlords. With the world changing around them, devout people like the Pharisees clung ever more tightly to their traditions and their ideas of what good and faithful people should be like. Their traditions were their anchor in a stormy world; their traditions kept them from being blown all over the place. Jesus was a threat to their stability—he challenged them by telling them that the traditions they clung to weren’t the most important thing God wanted them to be doing.

In this case, Jesus did something he’d done many times before, that always got people upset: he healed on the Sabbath. God told them to keep the Sabbath holy, and they were very strict about doing just that. They clung to their strictness as a protection against all the changes happening around them. And here Jesus is, publicly showing God’s power in a way that breaks their traditions about the Sabbath. If Jesus is right, that means that their traditions—the things that they cling to for stability in turbulent times—are going to have to change. So they’re afraid, and looking for any way they can to discredit Jesus and show that they were right all along. And they let their fear get in the way of seeing God. Their fear of change and their expectations of what God wanted got in the way of being God’s people. Their fear made them blind.

The parents of the man born blind were afraid, too. They were afraid that if they didn’t say what people wanted to hear, that they’d get thrown out. And that doesn’t mean they could just go on down the road to the next synagogue. It means they wouldn’t be able to go to worship anywhere, or go to any festivals or events. Put yourself in their shoes: can you imagine what it would be like to be thrown out of church? To not be allowed in to any community event? To know that wherever you go, people are talking about you behind your back, whispering about what a horrible person you are? It’s no wonder they were afraid. But they let their fear be stronger than their will to follow God.

Back to the story of Samuel anointing David as king. There’s fear in this story, too. At that time, Saul was king of Israel, the first king the nation had ever had. And although he’d started out as a pretty good king, things were starting to go downhill. Enemies were attacking Israel from the outside, and there was strife and deadly politics brewing inside. Nobody knew what was coming, and everybody was afraid. So God tells Samuel to go out and anoint the person who’s going to be the next king. Samuel says he can’t go because King Saul will kill him! He’s afraid. If Samuel followed his fears, he would stay put and Israel would be stuck with Saul as king. But God tells Samuel to go and worship with a religious sacrifice—a perfectly normal action for a priest—and God will tell him to anoint along the way. Well, Samuel decides to trust God despite his fears.

When Samuel gets to Bethlehem, the people of Bethlehem are afraid, too. Remember that things are very unstable, and so when they see Samuel coming, they’re afraid. Samuel is the prophet who put King Saul on the throne (and probably has his ear), and as a prophet he definitely has God’s ear. He can call down an army or the wrath of God. So when they see Samuel coming, the elders of the city came out to meet him literally trembling with fear. “Do you come peaceably?” they ask him. Imagine how relieved they must have been when Samuel said he came in peace and invited them to the sacrifice! I wonder what they thought and felt later, after the conflict between David and Saul put them squarely back in the hot seat?

In both the stories, people are afraid. And in both stories, people have expectations about God and God’s will that turn out to be wrong. In one story, people let those fears and expectations stop them from following God. In the other story, people follow God even when they’re afraid, even when God does something that surprises them. So my question is, which are we? What fears do we have that prevent us from following God? What expectations do we have that blind us to what God is doing in us and around us? And are we following them, or are we following God?

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 28), October 13, 2013

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15, Psalm 111, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19

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.

Have you ever looked at something, and your first reaction was “ew, gross!”  I don’t mean just a mild feeling of ickyness, I mean something that really and truly repulsed you?  Something that made your skin crawl at the very thought of touching it?  For me as a child, that was sea creatures.  Don’t get me wrong, fish can be fun to look at, and I enjoyed going to the Oregon Coast Aquarium.  But some of those creatures—ugh!  Like octopi—they just don’t move right, and they’re fast, and those eyes are really, really creepy.  There are other sea creatures even grosser to look at.  I quickly skipped over the pages with pictures of them in my science textbooks, because they grossed me out.  It was stupid, because it wasn’t like the picture could do anything; it was just ink on the page.  It couldn’t do anything to me.  But I couldn’t even bring myself to touch the picture because it just looked icky.  Have you ever felt like that?

Have you ever felt like that when you looked at a person?  Because that was about the way people felt about lepers in Jesus’ day.  They just weren’t right.  They were creepy.  They were tainted.  And there were all kinds of rules and regulations to keep them away from “normal” people.  They couldn’t live with normal people; they couldn’t live anywhere they might come into contact with normal people; they couldn’t touch normal people; they couldn’t allow anything they had touched to touch normal people.  Because then normal people might be contaminated by them, see?  Normal people shouldn’t have to put up with the creepy grossness of lepers.

And there were all kinds of rituals about leprosy.  If a normal person touched a leper, they were contaminated and under the same restrictions as lepers.  To be accepted back into society they had to go to a priest to be purified.  There was a ritual bath, the priest would inspect them and make sure they weren’t a leper, the whole nine yards.  It was a really big hassle, but you had to do it because otherwise even your family would have nothing to do with you.

That’s why the lepers kept their distance from Jesus, calling out to him but not coming near him.  They knew their place; they knew the most they could hope for was that he would shout a blessing to them.  Maybe the blessing would heal them, maybe it wouldn’t, but it would probably be the first kind word they’d heard in a long time.  Imagine that.  Imagine if your own family, your closest friends, wouldn’t have anything to do with you.  Imagine if nobody ever touched you—no handshakes, no hugs, not even a pat on the back.  Imagine if people saw you coming and started walking the other way.  For some of you, who have always had a strong and loving community around you, it may be hard to imagine what that would be like to be so isolated.  But I know that some of you have had times where you felt just as isolated, just as ostracized, as those lepers.

Now, let’s remember that there’s no medical need for this extreme quarantine and revulsion.  They didn’t have science, back then, and they had almost no knowledge of how disease spreads, but even to them it would have been obvious that leprosy doesn’t spread easily.  95% of all people are naturally immune to Hansen’s Disease, our modern name for leprosy.  And even if you’re one of the unlucky 5% who can actually get the disease, you have to be in pretty close quarters with someone who has the disease to catch it.  And most of what they called “leprosy” in Biblical days wasn’t actually Hansen’s disease; everything from really bad acne to rashes to the scars left by the pox got lumped in as leprosy.  No matter how bad your acne is, it doesn’t spread by contact!  Scars do not pass disease either.  And while some rashes are contagious, many aren’t … and even the ones that are contagious may not be anything but an annoyance.  So the danger lepers posed to society was pretty darn small.

But that didn’t really matter; lepers grossed people out and made them uncomfortable, and so society made darn good and sure that no nice, normal people had to deal with them.  And if that meant the lepers starved, if that meant their lives were made ten times more horrible by the isolation than by the disease itself, if that meant lepers suffered alone, well, nobody really cared.  They didn’t like lepers, and they’d convinced themselves that meant God didn’t like lepers either.

Except it turns out that’s not the case.  Jesus never met a leper he didn’t cure.  Jesus treated lepers the same way he treated everyone else, as beloved children of God.  It didn’t matter whether they were faithful followers of God; it didn’t matter whether they were good or bad.  It didn’t matter what ethnic group they belonged to or what gender or social group or anything else.  When Jesus saw a leper, he immediately cured them and sent them on their way to the priests to be inspected, washed clean, and allowed back into society.  People in Jesus’ day were so sure that lepers should be excluded, and so sure that that’s what God wanted them to do.  It never occurred to them to do otherwise.  And they were wrong!

Who are the lepers in our modern-day society, I wonder?  Who are the ones we don’t like, the ones we exclude, the ones we don’t even want to share a street with, much less a classroom or a restaurant or a home or a pew with?  It seems we human beings are always trying to figure out who’s in and who’s out, who’s good and who’s bad, who should be welcomed in and who should be given the cold shoulder?  The funny thing is, we can treat leprosy nowadays—and so many other diseases that are even worse.  We can cure a lot of things, and even those things we can’t cure, we can at least make them better.  There are people that look at Jesus’ miracles of healing and shrug, because compared to what doctors and nurses can do, they don’t look all that impressive.  But taking the people the community doesn’t like and healing them and bringing them back into fellowship?  Now, that takes a miracle.

We are very good at sharing God’s grace with people we like.  People who look like us, think like us, live the way we think people should live, vote the same way, and fit into our ideas of what good people should be.  If a pillar of the community gets a serious disease, out come the sympathy cards and the visits and the casseroles, and any fundraising needed.  But for people who aren’t pillars of the community—or people whose troubles aren’t socially acceptable—it’s a different story.  Particularly if they aren’t faithful Christians.  Any time a Christian organization wants to help people, you’ll hear it: “well, they aren’t Christian, so why do they deserve it?”  Or “well, they’ll only waste it, so why bother?”  Or “we’ve given them all this and they haven’t ever come to church.”  And you hear it in the pews on Sunday morning.  “I can’t believe so-and-so dared to show his face here.”  Or, “Well, I suppose that even those people have a right to come to worship—but that doesn’t mean I have to sit by them or shake their hands at the passing of the peace.”  Some of the reasons to keep people out seem pretty good to us—just like excluding lepers seemed pretty good to the people of Jesus’ day.

But Jesus didn’t keep them out.  Jesus, in fact, healed them and restored them to the community whenever he saw them.  Not just the ones who deserved it; not just the ones who had faith; not just the ones who said the right thing or did the right thing.  All of them.  When Jesus healed the ten lepers, nine went on their way without a second look back at Jesus; only one bothered to seek Jesus out.  And that one was a Samaritan, a man who would have been ignored and excluded from a Jewish community even if he hadn’t been a leper.  He had two strikes against him, not just the one.  And Jesus welcomed him and praised him!  And you know the other nine?  The others who were healed and never even came back to say thank you to Jesus for restoring their lives to them?  They were still healed.  Sure, it would have been better if they came back to Jesus, but that wasn’t a condition of their healing.  Jesus didn’t say, “well, I only heal people who follow me.”  And he didn’t take away their healing when they didn’t come back!  He saw the lepers, and he healed them, and he praised the one who was faithful, and he sent them back to their homes and communities.

There are many kinds of illness.  Some kinds are physical, like leprosy; some kinds are mental and emotional.  But sometimes the community gets sick, too.  Sometimes, the community excludes people whose only crime is to be different.  Sometimes, we can’t see past our own prejudices to see the children of God in the people we don’t like.  But God can see past the things that blind us.  God loves all his children, and God is always working towards healing, of people and communities.  God seeks out the lost, and those who have been cast out, and brings them home rejoicing.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Is God a healer?

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.

Amen.

Good News in a Broken World

3rd Sunday After Epiphany, Year C, Sunday, January 27th, 2013

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Luke 4:14-21

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, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

Today’s Gospel lesson shows us the first act of Jesus’ public ministry recorded in Luke.  Jesus goes to his home town, Nazareth, and participates in regular Sabbath worship.  He reads a short passage from Isaiah, sits down, and says the prophecy has been fulfilled.  What an announcement!  As sermons go, that’s pretty short.  Only one sentence.  (Sorry, but mine’s going to be a little longer than that.)  Yet Jesus’s sermon is so short because the prophecy from Isaiah says it all.  It perfectly encapsulated what Jesus’ ministry on earth was about.

When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit came down like a dove to him.  The Holy Spirit was with him, as he began his ministry, and there in Nazareth he proclaimed what his ministry was about, what God’s kingdom is about.  Good news to the poor, release to the captive, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and God’s abundant grace for all.  That’s what Jesus is all about.  That’s what God is all about.  That’s what life is like in the kingdom Jesus came to proclaim.

Good news for the poor: not a handout that feeds them for a day, but dignity and respect and a world in which they can earn enough to support their family.  Release to those who are held captive, whether that captivity is of body or mind.  There are all kinds of captivity.  Prisoners in jail are captives, yes, but so are those trapped by the cares of life that are grinding them down.  People in abusive relationships are captives, too.  And the longer you’re trapped, no matter what’s holding you down, the harder it is to even imagine what it would be like to be released.  What a relief to hear that you are free!  And blindness comes in all forms, from the physical to the spiritual to the intellectual.  Trapped in a dark world, what a joy to finally see the light.  Oppression comes in many forms, some blatant, some subtle.  To all people weighed down in body, mind, or spirit, Jesus comes bringing news of freedom.  Jesus comes proclaiming God’s love and grace.

Jesus comes to tell people that they have not been forgotten, and they have not been abandoned.  God wants us to be happy, and healthy, and free.  God wants us to live abundant lives filled with love and faith.  We live in a broken, sinful world, with all kinds of things that trap us and weigh us down.  We live in a world full of bad news and injustice.  It’s easy to take it for granted, to take it for normal, to assume that that is what the world is supposed to be like.  But that is not the life God wants for us.  Jesus Christ was sent to proclaim Good News to all, but especially the ones who are most in need of it: the poor, the brokenhearted, the sick, the trapped, all those who suffer.

And that’s not all.  Jesus didn’t just tell people the good news.  Jesus came to make the Good News a reality, to start the process of creating the kingdom of God, the place where sin is forgiven, brokenness is made whole, and where there is abundant life and freedom for all.  That kingdom isn’t here yet—it won’t be until Christ comes again—but it will come.  That is the deepest, truest reality of the universe.  In this world we live in, we see and experience so much pain and loss and brokenness.  But we know that it will not last forever, that the Good News is true, that all the world will be redeemed and healed and made free.  We have heard the words of Jesus, we have the Spirit in us, and we wait.

Last week I talked about the gifts of the Spirit.  These are all the talents that God gives to all of us.  Everything from the ability to teach or preach to the ability to heal or lead or follow—all are gifts of the Spirit.  All are given by God.  But why does God give them?  What are they for?   When the Spirit comes to us, what is it moving us to do?  The interesting thing about the Spirit is that if you look at the times the Spirit appears, it points to Christ.  The Spirit appears at Jesus’ baptism and again at his transfiguration, when God the Father claimed Jesus as his Son and told the Disciples to listen to him.  The Spirit appears at Pentecost, sending the Disciples out into the world to tell the crowds about Jesus.  The Spirit still points to Christ today, showing us the way to Christ.

In the Spirit, we were all baptized into the body of Christ.  We are Christ’s body in the world.  And what was Jesus Christ sent to do?  As he told the people of Nazareth, he was sent to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed and to tell God’s grace to all people.  Jesus was sent to proclaim the coming kingdom, and to bring it to all, so that they could see and hear and feel God’s presence with them.  Jesus came to help people live in the reality of the world to come.

We, too, are called to live in the reality of the world to come.  We are called to be the body of Christ in the world.  We are called to be Christ’s hands and feet and ears and eyes and mouth in the world.  We aren’t just here to think about Jesus for an hour a week.  We aren’t just called to remember him fondly.  We are called to live our lives in response to the Good News that Jesus came to bring.  Now, we can’t create God’s kingdom or make it come more quickly—only God can do that.  But we can live lives that point to that coming reality.  We can follow the Spirit which leads us to Christ, and with the Spirit’s help we can live lives that point to Christ and the Good News he brought.  We can live in the light of Christ.

None of us can do it alone.  We are all members of the body of Christ, but not one of us is Christ alone.  We all have different skills, different passions.  We have all been called to different ministries by the Holy Spirit.  But those ministries all work together to proclaim the Good News in word and deed.

As Paul says, no part of the body is complete in itself.  Hands, feet, eyes, ears, nose, and all the other parts.  Each one is needed, each one has its own task and its own gift.  We may like some parts better, and we may think some parts are prettier and more valuable, but all are needed.  All have been given gifts by the Spirit, and all are needed.

There are many divisions in our world.  Money, race, gender, politics, sexuality, religion.  You’ll find those divisions within the church as well as outside of it.  It’s very easy to let our differences and disagreements take center stage.  After all, they touch on fundamental issues.  But there is one thing more fundamental still: our lord and savior Jesus Christ, whose body we are.  Despite all the divisions and brokenness, we are called and gifted by the Spirit, beloved children of the Father, saved by the Son.  Despite all our divisions and the brokenness, we have heard the Good News of Jesus, the news of freedom and light and renewal and healing.  Despite all our divisions and brokenness, we are called to be the body of Christ in the world, to live in the light of God’s grace and show God’s love to the world.  May the Spirit which points to Christ guide our thoughts and our actions.

Amen.

Does Jesus Heal?

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, Sunday, February 12, 2012

2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Mark 1:40-45

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Lutheran seminary students are required to spend at least one summer working as a chaplain in a hospital or nursing home as part of our training.  This program, called Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE, combines practical hands-on work, group study, and one-on-one mentorship, and one of my classmates who had been in the Army called it “boot camp for pastors.”

I did my CPE at Oregon State Hospital.  It’s the mental facility where they filmed “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

There were strict rules for all employees and volunteers at the hospital.  One of them was that we could not tell anyone the names of the patients we worked with.  If we saw them out on the street, after they left, we could not make contact.  Unless they came up to us, we could not acknowledge that we knew them, and unless they brought it up, we could not say where we knew them from.  Not if anybody might be able to hear us.  This rule was supposed to protect the patients from people knowing they spent time in a mental hospital.

You see, there’s a stigma about mental illness.  It’s embarrassing.  It’s unpleasant.  If you are known to have a mental illness, people will look at you differently, and you will likely be discriminated against … particularly if your illness is severe enough that you end up in the hospital.  “Can’t he control it?” you hear people say.  Or “Can’t she just snap out of it?”  “Why can’t they act normally?”  Mental illness is a hard thing, a difficult thing to deal with that can split families and ruin lives.  There are no easy cures or answers why some people have it and others don’t.  So people ignore it, pretend it doesn’t exist, and in the process they ignore the people who suffer from mental illness.  There is a divide between the world and those who suffer from these devastating conditions, and it can be as wide as the Grand Canyon.  The mentally ill are often treated like lepers.

What the Bible calls “leprosy” included a lot more than just Hansen’s Disease, which is what we call it today.  Leprosy included everything from true leprosy to bad psoriasis to severe acne.  Leprosy was a terrible thing in the ancient world.  If you were a leper, you were an outcast.  You could not associate with healthy people.  You could not work to earn your daily bread, but had to beg.  Your own family would probably cast you out.  You could not go to the Temple to worship God and participate in the community of believers.  And you were often told their affliction was a punishment for the sins they had committed, so it was your own fault.

We hear this, and we think, “How horrible!  How primitive, how superstitious and cruel, to blame people for things that aren’t their fault and isolate them from the support they need to live and thrive!”  When the truth is, we do the same thing.  But instead of penalizing people with incurable diseases that are visible on their skin, we do it to people whose wounds are in their hearts and minds.

Besides the stigma, there’s another similarity between mental illness now and leprosy then.  It’s that both conditions were or are, by and large, incurable.  If you were a leper in Jesus’ day, unless you were extremely lucky and your “leprosy” was only a bad case of acne, you would have it for your entire life.  It was never going to go away.  Likewise, if you have clinical depression or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or any other mental illness, you will struggle with it for the rest of your life.  Some people are lucky enough that they can function on their own, with or without medication.  Some people will be in and out of mental hospitals, as their condition ebbs and flows.  And some of the people I worked with that summer at Oregon State Hospital will never be functional enough to leave the hospital, even with the best treatment possible.

During the summer I worked there, one of the stories of Jesus healing people came up as the appointed Gospel lesson for one Sunday.  One of my fellow students preached on it, and as we discussed that sermon Monday morning the Chaplain was very critical.  “Does Jesus heal?” he asked.  “Of course!” we replied.  “How can you possibly say that?” he said.  “You’ve been here a month.  How can you possibly believe that?  None of the patients at this hospital will ever be free of their illness.  Many of them will only leave the hospital for their graves.”  After twenty years of being a chaplain in prisons and hospitals, the chaplain had seen too much brokenness, pain, and suffering to believe that God could heal people.  He believed in emotional and spiritual healing—Jesus as Comforter—and social healing—Jesus the Good Shepherd welcoming people back into the flock—but not physical healing.

It can be hard to argue with his reasoning.  I know people who have been healed, who beat the doctors’ expectations, and I believe that Christ was working there, but for each story of hope there are many stories of pain and suffering.  There are so many people in the world who are faithful followers of God who will never receive healing in this life.  Those with mental illnesses, who struggle with addiction, with AIDS, Multiple Sclerosis, Lou Gherig’s Disease, a whole host of other devastating conditions will struggle with their conditions for the rest of their lives.

And then we come to a text like today’s Gospel.  Leprosy, the most dread disease of that day, healed with a touch!  Jesus, in one move, cured both the leper’s physical ailment and reunited him with the community that had turned its back on him.  And it makes me wonder why.  Why that leper, and not others?  How many lepers were there in Judea in Jesus day who weren’t that lucky?  What about the people here, now, today?  What about the people who are dying as we speak?  Is the chaplain right?  If Jesus is a healer, why isn’t he healing more people?

I don’t know.  People have been wondering why God allows pain and suffering since the first people existed.  C.S. Lewis called it “The Problem of Pain.”  My professors at seminary had a fancy Greek word for it, “theodicy.”  There have been a lot of theories, but there is no definitive answer.

What I do know, absolutely for certain, is that God is a healer, and God will heal all suffering and brokenness, whether now or when Christ comes again.  For some, that healing comes in this life.  For others, it will not come until the Resurrection.  We pray that healing comes soon, but it whether it comes now or later it will come.

And those who suffer are not alone.  Even when society turns its back, Jesus Christ is with the outcast, the leper, the unclean, the mentally ill, with all those who suffer.  Even when society turns its back, Jesus does not.  Our Lord spent his ministry with those pushed to the margins by their community: lepers, tax collectors, sinners.  Even when we would rather ignore the unpleasant reality of illness, Christ meets it head on.  Jesus Christ has suffered himself; he knows what we go through and will not abandon us.  We may not see the signs of Christ’s presence—when things are hardest, our pain can blind us to the support God is giving us.  There are times we feel utterly alone, and yet later, can look back later and see Christ with us.  We as Christians are invited to participate in this reality, by providing support in tangible ways, and serving as Christ’s hands and feet in the world.  We may not be able to cure illness with a touch, but we can support and nourish and love, and create an environment which supports healing.  Christ does not call us to sympathize with those who suffer from afar, to shake our heads and murmur how terrible it is.  Christ calls us to join him in his healing work.

I believe that there are miracles of healing.  I have seen them and I have heard others tell their stories, some in this very congregation.  Some are physical: deadly diseases cured.  Other healings are spiritual, not physical, when someone receives the strength to carry on, or a broken relationship is restored.  But no matter what form the healing takes, no matter when it happens, Jesus Christ is there.

Amen.

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Sunday, February 15 2009

2 Kings 5:1-14

Psalm 30
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Mark 1:40-45

Preached by Vicar Anna C. Haugen

First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Greensburg, PA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I knew a girl in college who would never allow a guy to pay for anything, particularly if they were out on a date.  She didn’t want to be vulnerable, didn’t ever want to feel obligated, so she used her money as a shield to keep herself in control of whatever they did together.  She liked knowing that she didn’t have to depend on anyone else.  When dealing with guys, she was a control freak.  Money is a potent form of power, and she knew how to use it.

Naaman wanted to use his riches to be in control, too.  Being told of a prophet of God who might be able to cure his disease, Naaman’s first action wasn’t to go to the prophet and ask for healing.  No, Naaman wanted healing on his own terms.  So he went to his king, and got a huge sum of money to bribe the king of Israel into helping.  Naaman also got a letter from his king to the king of Israel that was harsh enough to panic the king of Israel, and a powerful military escort.  Chariots were the tanks of their day, the most effective way of projecting power on a battlefield, requiring much money and skill to maintain and use.  It was the old carrot and stick approach: if you do what I want and heal me, Naaman said, you get a king’s ransom in gold, silver, and costly garments.  If you don’t heal me, my king-who is more powerful than you, with a larger and better equipped army-will be very unhappy.  So you’d better do what I want.  Naaman demanded a miracle of healing, rather than ask for God’s grace.  He wanted God to work by his rules, rather than try to work by God’s rules.

The prophet Elisha heard about it, and called Naaman to be cured, telling him simply to wash in the Jordan river.  Naaman should have been happy, right?  He got what he wanted: to be cured from a horrible, disfiguring, wasting disease.  But no.  Instead of being grateful, Naaman was insulted that the prophet’s instructions were so simple.  Naaman was a powerful man, a rich man, come with a huge entourage and lavish bribes to demand a huge miracle.  He wanted a big show, something worthy of his status, something that he could do to heal himself.  He wanted something that acknowledged his power and that of the king he served.  Aram, what we now call Syria, was mighty and rich, much more so than the piddling little country of Israel.  Coming to puny Israel for help, admitting that they had something Aram didn’t, was already an affront to Naaman’s pride.  Then to have the prophet of God refuse to deal with him directly, refuse to play to Naaman’s pride, refuse to give him some Herculean task and showy ritual to mark the importance of the occasion-that was intolerable.  To have come all that way, just to be told to bathe in a river, something he could have done at home?  Naaman wasn’t going to put up with that.  He turned away and almost rejected the miraculous healing God was offering him.  He had to be convinced to allow God to help him!  It seems incredible to us, almost unbelievable, that anyone would reject God’s help and healing because their pride was offended.  It seems incredible that anyone would turn away from God with the gift they so desperately need right there in front of them.  And yet, we do it all the time.

Nobody likes feeling vulnerable.  We like to feel we have control over our own destinies.  Think about how much respect we give to “self-made men,” those who take a bad situation and use their own abilities and ambition to rise above it, creating a better life for themselves.  We Americans also tend to take a lot of pride in being self-reliant, take care of ourselves.  Think about how much time we spend planning out our futures.  Think about how afraid people have been lately about the economy, about the threat of lost jobs and pay cuts.  Is it really about money, at the heart of it?  Or is it about something deeper, about knowing that one of the foundations of our society is shaky and unpredictable?  Even those people with relatively secure jobs are afraid and unsure.  People who have already been laid off, whose lives have been completely changed by forces beyond their control-I can only imagine what they must be feeling.

I know when I feel vulnerable, I try not to show it, try to pretend everything’s going fine, try to take control of the things that are most important to me.  Like Naaman, when I’m weak I try to look strong, try to keep the situation in terms that are familiar to me, on my own home turf.  For Naaman, the home turf was wealth and military posturing.  For me, the home turf is academic debate and nitpicking.  There are many defense mechanisms, ways to try to compensate for feeling weak and vulnerable, but everyone has them.  Sometimes, we don’t even realize we’re using them.  What are yours?

Admitting that someone or something else has power over you means that you are not in control.  It means that you are vulnerable to them.  It can be very scary.  But here’s the thing: no matter what we do, no matter how much power we have, we are not in control of the world.  God is.  God is the one who created the world, who redeemed it through death on a cross, who brings us out of the pit of sin and despair and makes us whole.  None of that is our own doing.  All of it belongs to God and is done by God.  It is not our will that determines the course of our lives, but God’s will.

But do we really believe that God is in control?  We say it all the time in worship, in hymns, we read it in the Bible and hear it preached.  We pray it in the Lord’s Prayer, asking for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.  But all too often, we don’t mean what we say.  When things go right, we look back at all the little things that happened, everything we did, that helped make things turn out the way we wanted them to.  We attribute things to chance, luck, other people, everyone but God.  We don’t look for all the little ways God has intervened to help and guide us, the ways God has shaped events.  When things go wrong, we want God to step into our lives and fix everything, but fix it on our terms.  God gets the blame for tragedies-children dying, jobs lost, homes destroyed-but we don’t often give God the credit for all the things that go well.  Like Naaman, we try to keep control of our lives by keeping God’s presence within boundaries of what we consider acceptable.  And it’s a lot easier for us than for Naaman; we don’t have a prophet of God like Elisha to point out our mistake and make us relate to God on God’s terms rather than our own.

We live in a world broken by sin.  I don’t mean just individual sins, bad things done by individuals.  Sin has invaded every aspect of our lives.  Each individual sin takes us further away from how God wants us to live our lives.  All those little-and big-things we do wrong add together to create ever larger problems.  Because we are flawed and sinful people, the things we create-like institutions, groups, and cultures-are also flawed and sinful.  Just as our bodies get sick because of diseases and germs, our minds and souls get sick because of sin.  But while our bodies can fight off minor ailments and doctors can cure us of many serious illnesses, the only one who can save us from sin is God.  Like leprosy, sin is a long-term wasting disease that affects our entire life, something we can’t cure ourselves.  Like Naaman, our only hope is the grace of God, a miracle of healing given for us.  Like Naaman, we need to be washed clean.

But like Naaman, we want to be in control.  We don’t want to admit we have a problem, don’t want to admit we can’t fix it ourselves, don’t want to admit we’re vulnerable.  We come up with reasons why we don’t need God’s help.  We convince ourselves we’re not doing that badly, that we’re no worse off than anyone else.  We worship God on Sundays and try to leave him safely in church behind us when we leave instead of looking for his influence and guidance in our daily lives, until something bad happens and we want God to fix it just the way we prefer.  We turn away from the love and salvation God offers us through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, just like Naaman turned away from the healing he was offered in the waters of the Jordan river.

It’s hard to be vulnerable, to put our trust in God to take care of us and heal us.  It’s hard to admit that we need God’s grace so desperately.  But here’s the good news: we have been washed clean by the waters of baptism and redeemed out of the hands of sin and death by our Lord’s sacrifice.  Even living in a world broken by sin, even when we turn away from God, God never turns away from us.  Baptism isn’t just a matter of splashing a bit of water on a baby’s head.  Baptism is a fundamental cleansing, a drowning of the old, sinful self.  Each day of our lives as baptized children of God, we die to sin and rise to new life in Christ Jesus.  We are sinners, yes, but we are also saints claimed and made holy and whole by God.  This is why for the last few weeks we’ve been using the Remembrance of Baptism in place of the Confession of Sins we normally use.  It’s a reminder that baptism isn’t just a once-in-a-lifetime event but a daily reality, a way of living in God’s grace our whole life long.

We don’t need to be afraid to let God work within our lives.  We don’t need to be afraid to admit we need God’s help.  We don’t need defense mechanisms to try and prove we have control or hide our own fears.  We don’t need to control God’s actions, because God loves us and cares for us and won’t abandon us.  Even when things aren’t going the way we want them to, even when we’re afraid of the way things are going, God is still with us, still healing us from our sin and working to make us whole.  God washes us clean from the illness of sin in the waters of baptism.  All we need do is open our hearts and minds to God’s work in our lives and stop turning away.