Way of the Cross as the Way of Life

Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
Mark 8:34-35

You can’t be a follower of Jesus for long without making your peace with paradox, for Jesus often says things that don’t seem to make sense, but are in fact true.  

In church this Sunday you’ll hear Jesus speak perhaps the greatest paradox of faith. He and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, which is where his disciples imagine Jesus will claim his power as the Messiah. Instead, Jesus tries to prepare them for the fact that he will undergo great suffering and be killed. When they try to convince him otherwise, he tells them that if they want to follow him, they, too, must pick up their cross of suffering. Understandably Jesus’ words don’t make sense to them. How can greatness be revealed in suffering? How does death lead to life?

What’s striking is Jesus’ matter-of-fact acceptance that suffering is not only a part of life, but an essential part of the spiritual path. He assumes that everyone has a cross to bear. The only question is whether we will rail against it or choose to carry our cross with some modicum of grace, accepting it as our own and finding the life it brings.

To be sure, there is nothing to be gained by needless, senseless suffering, or what psychiatrists call false suffering, which is the pain we experience as a by-product of avoiding something else. How, then, can we distinguish between our sufferings, in order to lay down the crosses that do not belong to us and pick up the ones that do? 

One distinction might be in the fruits of suffering. Is our suffering helping us to grow, or only confirming our fears and keeping us small? The kind of suffering Jesus endured and that he encourages us to embrace always has redemption of some kind on the other side. In contrast, false suffering causes pain that leads nowhere. “Choose your pain,” a wise person said to me. “Whichever path you choose will involve pain. Which pain carries the promise of life?”

The truest test of whether a cross is ours to bear is when we don’t have the option to lay it down. The only choice we have is how we will carry it. Benedictine nun Joan Chittister once described the will of God as what remains of a situation after we try without stint and pray without ceasing to change it. Then Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane becomes our own: “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me. But thy will, not mine, be done.” 

Our crosses require us to let go of something we love or had hoped for, because life demands it, even though we had wished for something else. And it hurts as much as cutting off a limb or tearing out our heart. 

The paradox–the mystery of faith–is this: when we bear the cross that has come to us, God gives us more of ourselves in return. Our selves become grounded in the love of Christ, for us and through us. I don’t know how this works. I only know that it does. 

The key is to accept the cross for what it is–the hardest possible thing asked of us–and to embrace it as our destiny, even if we would run far from it if we could. In that acceptance, we join our will to God’s, moving from being victims of fate or circumstance to active agents of our own transformation. We make room for Christ within ourselves that he occupies with love, helping us to become even more of the self we were created to be, even as we’re being stripped away of parts of ourselves that we hate to lose. Through what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “unmerited, redemptive suffering” we play a small part in Jesus’ transformation of the world.

In the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage, of all places, we find this prayer: 

Most gracious God, we give you thanks for your tender love
in sending Jesus Christ to come among us, to be born of a human mother,
and to make the way of the cross to be the way of life.

The way of the cross as the way of life is the great paradox at the heart of Christian faith. It doesn’t seem to make sense, but it’s true. 

Lent is a particularly fruitful time to consider the particular cross that is yours to accept. You needn’t pretend that it doesn’t hurt. It’s enough to name it and do your best to carry it. Remember that Jesus is there to help you shoulder it. Dare to trust that God’s grace will not only sustain you, but honor your suffering and help transform the loss you experience into a way of life. Rest assured that others will know something of grace and love because of the cross you accept and carry.  

Wilderness Living

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Mark 1:9-15

Good morning, friends of Christ Church. It is good to be with you at long last. While I would much prefer to be with you in person, we are blessed to be able to worship together via technology. Special thanks to your good priest-in-charge, Rev. Fanny, and your vestry, for their leadership.

Taking inspiration from the story we just heard and that we read in church every year on the first Sunday of the spiritual season patterned after Jesus’ 40 days’ in the wilderness,  I’d like to reflect with you on the nature of wilderness experiences in our own lives and what they can teach us.  

According to the Gospel of Mark, the same Spirit that descended upon Jesus as a dove when he rose from the waters of baptism drove him into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan. Other versions of this same story suggest that Jesus went out into the wilderness of his own accord. Either way, to the wilderness he went. 

Sometimes we choose to enter a wilderness of one form or another; sometimes we are driven there by God or by circumstance, and sometimes the wilderness comes to us, catching us off guard. We go to the wilderness by choice when we know that it’s time to make a change, a change that carries with it some degree of risk, a change that takes us to the edge of who we are now and beyond. God calls us into the wilderness, or drives us there, when we’re being prepared or tested for a future call or invited into a deeper relationship with Him. The wilderness comes to us when we’re confronted with circumstances or a change that we weren’t expecting, 

What defines a wilderness, be it an actual location or an internal state, is that it takes us beyond the edge of what’s familiar and predictable. In that new place, physical or internal, our senses are awakened, and our awareness is heightened. We might go into the wilderness for the best of reasons–the birth of a child, acceptance of a new job, beginning retirement. Or it could be thrust upon us by circumstances we would never choose or wish upon anyone else. 

I did something two weeks ago that thrust a lot of people I care about into a wilderness of pain and sense of betrayal from the church they had hoped was a safe place for them and those they loved. I would do anything to reverse that decision now, but I can’t, and so the best I can do is enter that wilderness with them to the extent they will allow me in. While in no way equal to their pain, my wilderness is living with the dissonance, the disconnect between the person I want to be and what I have done. It’s not the first time, nor the last, surely, that I will be confronted with my sin. One of the dangers of public leadership is the increasing cost of one’s mistakes for other people. I can only pray that the walk toward reckoning will allow for God’s grace to enter in, and multi-generational pain, in time, to be healed. I’m also reminded, painfully so, that for some, the wilderness–living on the edge–is all that they know. 

Let me state here what many have said and what you may be thinking: we have all been living in the wilderness of COVID-19 for over a year. Because of the pandemic and its effects, we’ve all been living beyond the edge of life as we knew it, some far more than others. While there is hope on the horizon, we still don’t know when we’ll be able to speak of this wilderness in the past tense. “I hadn’t planned on giving this much up for Lent,” someone wryly posted on social media this time last year. Throughout the year the losses continued to mount. 

So I daresay, as Lent rolls around again, that we are all experts at wilderness living. 

For all its hardships, we’ve learned a lot from this wilderness and are continuing to learn. For most of us, COVID-19 wasn’t the first wilderness we’ve lived through, or even  the only one we’re in now. And we know that how we choose to live in it makes all the difference in the world. 

At a diocesan leadership retreat Bishop Chilton shared with a small group of us that for Lent this year, she felt that God was inviting her to let go of the word ‘when,’ as in when could she see her son again, or when would she feel safe to go to the grocery store. “‘When’ puts my focus on the future, which I can’t control,” she said, “and it takes my focus away from my life here and now. God is inviting me to live in the present moment, not in some distant ‘when.’” Focusing on the gifts and tasks of each day helps us all experience God’s grace through small things that we might otherwise miss. 

Let me suggest to you that the purpose of Lent is to help prepare us for our real-life wilderness experiences by reminding us of what we already know and need to hold onto when we’re living beyond the edge of what’s familiar.  

Here are some of the things I’ve learned and continue to learn about wilderness living. 

The first wilderness task is to accept where we are. No matter how we got here, when we’re in a wilderness, there is little to be gained by complaint or blame. Allowing ourselves to feel the wide range of emotion that being in the wilderness evokes is part of  what acceptance requires, while at the same time recognizing that not every emotion needs to be acted upon or taken as the sole interpreter of reality. The sooner we accept our new reality and make our home here, the better off we’ll be. 

A second wilderness task is to focus on daily sustenance, distinguishing between wants and needs. Simplicity is what sustains us in the wilderness. All of the classic Lenten disciplines, such as fasting or other forms of self-denial were never meant to be harsh; at their best, they are a course correction, a way of placing in check some of our less healthy habits and examining our daily practices of self-care.

A third wilderness task is learning to share the responsibilities of caring for the wider community. We tend to think of our wilderness experiences as solitary ones, with significance only for us, but when we’ve been in the wilderness for a while, we realize that we are not alone. The way we get through it is by caring for each other. Dr. Anthony Fauci, known for his expertise in stemming the tide of the virus, once said in response to those unwilling to wear masks in public, “I don’t know how to convince you to care for other people.” Our suffering can open our eyes to the suffering of others; it can soften our hearts. 

The last and most important wilderness task that I’ll mention here is learning to trust that God is present. While stripped of so much, we can experience a depth of spiritual connection to God utterly unique to the wilderness. As we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and completely honest in our prayers, our relationship with God in Christ becomes more real, a source of daily guidance and abiding love. 

Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness harkens back, biblically, to another wilderness time, when the people of Israel wandered in their wilderness from slavery to freeedom for 40 years. Those wilderness stories are a treasure trove when we find ourselves in wildernesses of our own. I’ll end with one of them–the story of manna falling from the sky. You may recall that the Israelites fled Egypt in haste, with Pharaoh’s soldiers in pursuit behind them. After God rescued them, the people of Israel rejoiced but also wondered what they were to do next. How would they live? Where were they to go? What would they eat? 

In that wilderness time, God provided for them what they needed for food in the form of a substance that fell from the sky that they could gather up each morning, sufficient for the day, but only for the day. If they tried to hoard the manna, it would rot. It was only enough for each day. I think back on what Bishop Chilton said about letting go of the word ‘when,’ as a way to focus on each day.  

I leave you with the image of manna–God giving what you need, what I need, for each day, as we make our way through whatever wilderness we find ourselves in. Pray with me now as we enter Lent–the spiritual season that teaches us how to live with grace and gratitude no matter where we are.

Let us pray: Lord, I give you thanks for all those gathered here today, the faithful of Christ Church, Clinton. I lift each one before you, and all whom they love and carry in their hearts. May your grace, your sustenance, your manna sustain them in the wildernesses of their lives. Lead them, Lord; lead us all through the wilderness to the promise of life that awaits us on the other side. In Jesus’ name and in the Spirit’s power, we pray. Amen.

Hearing From Those We’ve Hurt

I would like to apologize for the hurt caused in inviting Max Lucado to preach at Washington National Cathedral, and for not heeding the appeals that came to Dean Hollerith and me prior to Sunday, February 7 asking us to reconsider. I didn’t take the time to truly listen to your concerns. In a desire to welcome a wide variety of Christian voices to the Cathedral pulpit and on the assumption that Max Lucado no longer believed the painful things he said in 2004, I made you feel at risk and unwelcome in your spiritual home. I am sorry.  

In the days since, I have heard from those who were not only wounded by things Max Lucado has said and taught, but equally wounded by the decision to welcome him into the Cathedral’s pulpit. I didn’t realize how deep those wounds were and how unsafe the world can feel. I should have known better.

More than apology, we seek to make amends. As a beginning, we invite all who wish to speak of their experiences in the church as LGBTQ+ persons and their allies to join Dean Hollerith and me for a listening session on Sunday, February 21 at 7:00 p.m. EST. Register for the discussion   

I share, with permission, excerpts from some of the people who wrote to me this week. Their voices are the ones we did not listen to, and theirs the pain endured by our actions. I am listening now, and so is Dean Hollerith.  

** As a gay man of faith who grew up in the south, my parents were heavily influenced by Mr. Lucado’s words of hate. It took years for me to work with them to overcome rehetoric such as from Mr. Lucado and for them to find the Grace to accept that I am not only a gay man, but a gay Christian. This was a painful process for us both, and while certainly Mr. Lucado is not solely responsible for the unfortunate homophobia that exists within many denominations of Christianity, he has certainly had a harmful impact on the LGBTQ+ rights movement within Christian circles and has actively contributed to a culture of hatred and exclusion within Christianity. **

** As the mother of a transgender child, I am sad and confused about the choice to invite him. . . Sadly my child does not feel that we have “won.” As a transfeminine person, gay marriage is no real victory as they worry if they will even make it past 30 living in the identity that they do. Every day is a battle to be in the world – a world that fears people like my child and very often extinguishes them. **  

** In truth, I still had to force myself to listen to Lucado’s message. Though he had some insightful things to say, having lived in the South for 59 years, I could feel the underlying condemnation that Lucado and his followers have cast upon the LGBT people, but also anyone who does not buy into their dogma. Because of this type of message, I am estranged from my family because after 50 years I finally tired of my mother and sister’s condemnation of me for my lifestyle. The irony of it all is that I have spent my entire life in service to G-d and the church. **

** This morning in my quiet time, I was pondering why the events of this past weekend were so upsetting and why I am still so shaken. I know analogies don’t always land but my stunning and brilliant wife suggested this one: You’re at a family dinner and the man who abused you is there. He has never confessed or tried to heal things. Your mother knows of the abuse, invites him anyway, and suggests (again) that it’s important for you not to bring up the abuse and to be polite because he is family. This is not the first time she has invited those who hurt members of the family in this way. And each time those who have borne the brunt of the abuse are expected to be silent — and even expected to eagerly learn from them. And this time it’s not just a regular dinner, it’s a special Sunday dinner. He’s given the place of honor at the head of the table and expected to ask God’s blessing. **

** My husband  and I were saddened by the invitation extended to Max Lucado to preach from the Canterbury pulpit. It leaves us feeling shaken and unsure. The decision to invite Bishop Gene Robinson to preside on Sunday felt like a strange appeasement. . . Marriage equality is not the only issue for the LGBTQ community and our families. Trans people are murdered every day on our streets and young people who identify as LGBTQ end their own lives in terrifying numbers. We are left feeling hurt and disregarded. The Cathedral ploughed right ahead to provide a platform to Rev. Lucado, even though it must have been apparent the hurt this was causing. As a gay couple in our 50’s, we have always been aware that our society often feels it can debate our right to happiness, or even whether we can be full participants in the church. **

** Certainly you must know the deep harm caused by the conversion therapies Max Lucado supports, and that conversion therapies have been rejected as “dangerous and discredited” by the American Psychiatric Association. You must know the alarming suicide rates among LGBTQ teens who have been subjected to the unholy torture of conversion therapy. If you have never had the experience of pastoring a family through the suicide of their teen, I do not wish that on you. If you have, you understand what it means that 40% of LGBTQ teens say they have seriously considered suicide. To hear you say we must “find common ground” and step out of our “echo chambers” made me weep. **

** Living in San Antonio for 15 years, we got the full experience of evangelical Christianity and the types of people who fund Rev. Lucado’s church, which wasn’t far from our first home there. I’ve been denied hospital chaplain positions, had to hide my spouse’s identity when I worked as a private school chaplain, been yelled at by parents as I protected our LGBTQIA students’ right to have a special interest group as part of our overall club structure, etc. Had my elderly parents not needed me, I would still be living in the UK where I had more civil rights than I do in my home state in a country whose uniform I wore proudly for 22 years, albeit in the closet. No, we don’t know how this ends. **

** Part of my ministry in the world is as a church finder for wounded seekers who want to return to a safe Christian community. Some are gay people recovering from being kicked out of their churches or from years of hearing that they are less than from pastors like Max Lucado. Some are women recovering from harsh fundamentalist traditions. Max Lucado is a person who has no doubt inflicted this kind of harm on LGBTQ+ Christians and likely, women, as well. I am also writing as the mother of a transgender queer child who has grown up in the Episcopal Church, worshiped in person and online at the National Cathedral, and who has found loving acceptance in her home church. To see the Cathedral celebrating this preacher is hurtful. **

** If you are not hearing and seeing the LGBTQIA+ Episcopalians and allies who are saying, “I’m not sure I’m safe, I’m not sure I belong, I’m not sure I can trust the leadership of this denomination, I’m not sure I should keep sharing my gifts in this institution…”, then perhaps you need to do some prayerful looking and listening. I have been seeing words like that everywhere I look, over the past few days. . . And it doesn’t help at all to tell people, “This is just the National Cathedral, it doesn’t say anything about our parish/diocese.” What people see and hear is that Episcopal church leaders claim to have their backs, but do things that hurt them, and then don’t listen when they speak up. That tarnishes all of us. It damages our witness and ministry churchwide. **

** If the invited preacher were a known white supremacist would the Cathedral make the same accommodations for him? Isn’t racial equality an undebatable subject? Wouldn’t the harm to people of color be immediately spotted given history and the church’s history? I would say it is comparable for LGBT people, the cost. **

** Inviting Mr Lucado to preach at your pulpit was irresponsible. He does not share our view of Christ’s Love. He puts people in the category of “other.” He represents a tradition of white men in power who diminish women, gays, black and brown people, and anyone who resists their power. . . He represents a throughline to those who have used God’s name to demean me — because I am adopted from an unwed mother, because I am a survivor of sexual assault, because I am gay. With one action, you turned what I have valued as a safe space every Sunday since the start of the pandemic to one which — at least for one Sunday — was unsafe. **

** I would be remiss not to call this out — “THIS IS US!”. . . These actions are not one-offs, and involve all marginalized groups. These actions are a manifestation of the ugliness that’s in “us” within the Episcopal Church — TEC and across dioceses, including EDOW. I implore you to openly acknowledge this reality in the Episcopal Church — the work of striving for justice and peace is as important inside the Episcopal Church as it is in the world outside of our corporate body. **

Reading your words has broken my heart, and I will carry them going forward. Thanks to all who have written or posted about your thoughts, feelings, and lived experiences. Your courage in speaking out should not have been necessary. Again, I am sorry for the pain we inflicted.  

Once more, I invite all who wish to speak of their experiences in the church as LGBTQ+ persons and their allies to join Dean Hollerith and me on Sunday, February 21 at 7:00 p.m. EST. Register for the discussion

In addition, I invite you to read a message from Dean Hollerith

May God order our steps going forward.

Bishop Mariann

Jesus’ Healing Ways

Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
Isaiah 40: 29-31

Jesus left the synagogue at Capernaum and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still dark, he got up and went to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered them, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came to do.” And he went out throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Mark 1:29-39

Hello, friends of All Saints. What a privilege to worship God with you today. I’m grateful for the opportunity to express my affection and admiration for this faith community. A special word of thanks to your good rector, Fr. Ed Kelaher, your clergy and lay staff, your wardens and vestry members for their inspired and faithful servant leadership.

I follow All Saints’ ministries closely and personally benefit from doing so, as do others across the diocese and beyond. In particular, I commend you for the breadth and depth of your collective witness to Jesus Christ and His love; your commitment to a life-long pattern of discipleship and spiritual growth; and your service, in Jesus’ name, to those whose life circumstances bear the brunt of this world’s brokenness and sin. While your reach is global, I especially want to thank you for your loving presence in Southeast Washington, DC through your partnership with Little Lights, and for your work with Central Union Mission that serves people experiencing homelessness throughout the Metro Area. 

I used to tell the people of the congregation I served in Minneapolis that if they could rouse themselves out of bed on the cold Sunday mornings in January and February and make it to church, they would be richly rewarded. The themes and Scripture readings of the Epiphany season are so uplifting–all pointing toward the revelation of God’s love in Jesus Christ and the ways that God illuminates, reveals, and inspires us, and works through us to reveal something of that same love in ways large and small. While the pandemic has certainly changed how we gather for worship, the reward has been especially true for you at All Saints this Epiphany season. 

Before a parish visitation I typically listen to the sermon preached there the previous week. For All Saints I listened to the last four sermons preached from this pulpit, one from each of your clergy team. You are blessed with clergy who convey the power of the gospel with conviction and skill, offering you spiritual insight and gentle exhortations to be God’s voice, to imitate Jesus and his way in the world, to imagine him calling you to something big, and to give him authority in all areas of your life. Amen and amen. 

My Epiphany offering is to explore with you the nature of Jesus’ healing power as it is described in Scripture and how we can experience his healing now. “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,” we heard from the prophet Isaiah. There is a lot of waiting required whenever we’re sick or wounded. Waiting for care. Waiting for the pain to ease. Waiting for the body to heal. Waiting for the grace to accept what does not heal.  

The gospel text today picks up the narrative of Jesus’ first day of public ministry in the fishing village of Capernaum, not far from Nazareth where Jesus grew up. He had finished teaching in the synagogue–where, as you heard last week, he astounded people with his authority, and then cast out a demon from a man possessed, again with authority. Jesus then left the synagogue and went to stay at the home of Simon Peter. We learn that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was sick with a fever and Jesus healed her. 

(As an aside, while the text tells us of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, nowhere in Scripture is there mention of Simon Peter’s wife. I wonder if she had died young. We’ll never know, of course, but I wondered about Simon Peter’s wife this week.) 

Word got around fast that there was a healer in town. By nightfall the people of Capernaum had brought all who were sick or demon possessed to him. The text tells us that “the whole city gathered at the door.” There must have been a lot of illness in Capernaum then. Perhaps it was always that way, or maybe there was a particular illness going around. Imagine the scene: all these people lined up outside the house waiting, wanting to be healed, wanting a loved one to be healed. The image is not unlike what we’ve seen in the last year–people so sick that their loved ones bring them to hospital emergency rooms, filling the waiting room and lining up outside in the hallways, waiting for a chance to get well. 

If you are living with illness or injury now, or caring for someone who is sick, you may know what it’s like to need to find someone who has healing power. Like the people in Capernaum of Jesus’ day, you have a lot of company now,  and not only because we’re in the midst of a pandemic–although COVID-19 is now the leading cause of death in the United States by a wide margin. While COVID-19 is understandably foremost on our minds, all manner of illness and injury assault the human body and spiritual forces wreak havoc on our souls. 

Seen through this lens, it’s striking to note how much of Jesus’ ministry focused on healing the physically sick and casting out demons, casting out, in other words, the spiritual forces that seek to bring us down–depression, addiction, and rage, to name only a few demons of our time. This was not a peripheral dimension of his work: he healed people all the time, everywhere he went, and he drew large crowds because of it. People in Jesus’ day wanted to be well as much as we do now. As the living expression of God’s compassion, Jesus walked among them as one who healed. 

The immediacy of the healing stories is always striking to us, and at times confusing, for we long for that immediacy when we are suffering or when a loved one suffers. Why that doesn’t happen as clearly as it seems to in the stories of Scripture is something we can’t help but wonder about. 

For some, that gap in our experience relative to the healing stories of Scripture becomes the chasm they cannot cross over to a life of faith or it’s the reason they lose  faith. No matter the depth of our own faith we’d be made of stone if we didn’t struggle ourselves with the mystery of it all–why some are healed and others are not; why some forms of healing come to us and some do not. 

There is great mystery in healing. While there is much we can do to facilitate our own healing and open ourselves to receive it, we can’t force it. We can do everything right and still get sick. When Jackie Kennedy Onassis was diagnosed with the cancer that would ultimately take her life in her early 60s, she is reported to have said, “What was the point of all those sit ups?” Recently one of the clergy in our diocese who was, as he told me, “beyond careful” in his efforts not to contract the coronavirus spent four nightmarish days in an intensive care unit struggling to breathe. 

Conversely, we can indulge in countless careless or self-destructive behaviors, and the natural healing processes will continue working far longer than we have any right to count on them. A dear friend of mine lost his wife to a brain tumor. He said to me: I treat my body terribly, and I’m still alive. She treated her body like the temple of the Holy Spirit that it was, and she’s gone.” It’s a mystery. 

But this I know: to experience the presence of the Risen Christ, known to us in Spirit and in truth, in community and in quiet, through the sacraments and Scripture, the kindness of friend and stranger, has healing power. The healing of our broken bodies and wounded souls–whatever the cause–is central to a life in Christ, central to our relationship with Jesus. 

Jesus’ healing presence is mysterious and beyond our control, but it is real. His healing is something we can ask for and open ourselves to receive. But it isn’t magic, and as you well know, it doesn’t spare us from suffering and waiting. It doesn’t exempt us from the responsibility to care for ourselves and our loved ones, and our society. As Christians, when we hear or experience vast disparities in access to health care, and exposure to things that make people sick, that’s a cause of concern. As the pandemic has revealed, painfully so, if one is sick, all are at risk.

I know that I am most available to the healing presence of Christ when I acknowledge and accept whatever it is that I need healing for or from. This is no small step. The second step, equally important, is, as Father Matthew said so well last week, to give Jesus authority over our illness or pain. From what I can tell, Jesus’ healing doesn’t depend upon our acknowledging that some things in this world are bigger than we are, or that we consciously ask for his help, but there is something that frees up in us when we accept where we are and what we need. For me it feels like waving the white flag: I’ve done all that I can, and I’m still sick; I’ve worked at everything, and I’m still broken; I am one of the walking wounded. Please, help.

Being healed by Jesus takes many forms. Sometimes that healing comes as a complete release from whatever it was that kept us down, a kind of freedom that we could hardly imagine before we experienced it. I remember a priest saying to me when I was in my mid-twenties and really struggling with some of the deeper wounds of my life, “You are going to love being on the other side of this.” I thought to myself, “I’ll never be on the other side of this.” But he was right. I did reach the other side. And like bones that grow stronger after they are broken, I felt stronger having been healed of what had plagued me for so long. 

Sometimes, however, healing comes not through the removal of one’s wounds, but through finding the grace in and through them. This is not what we would prefer, and it takes time to accept, but there is healing, nonetheless. St. Paul writes of this kind of healing in a famous passage from Second Letter Corinthians. Something was not well in Paul’s life. We don’t know what it was; he called it “a thorn in the flesh,” something that hurt him and kept him down. “Three times I appealed to the Lord that it would leave me,” Paul writes, but to no avail. Paul was to live with his frailty, not be spared from it. “My grace is sufficient for you,” the Lord told him, “for my power is made perfect in weakness.” “Therefore I am content with weakness,” Paul concludes, “for whenever I am weak, through the grace of Christ, I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12) 

Examples of such grace are too many to cite: think of all the people you’ve known or heard about who not only made their peace with their so-called handicaps or limitations, but gained strength through them, and gave strength to others. If given the opportunity to be healed of whatever thorns in the flesh they live with, no doubt they would jump at the chance. But by God’s sufficient grace they still live abundant lives, and so can we, even with our infirmities and wounds. For wholeness of life does not mean perfection, or flawlessness. Wholeness of life means living fully the lives we have been given, striving for health when we can, yet accepting and seeking grace through incompleteness when we must.  

Jesus is about the work of deep, transformational healing. There is a necessary waiting involved: those who wait for the Lord will have their strength renewed. We wait, doing what we can see to do, but also realizing that there is a rhythm of working hard and then surrendering to all that lies beyond our ability to control. 

Our part in healing others depends on who and where we are. Some among us have the gift of spiritual healing–the ability to bring peace and solace to wounded souls. Some, the gift of physical healing, through medicine and the healing arts. Others have the gift of compassion: providing a meal, visiting those who are sick, or offering needed assistance when others are down. Still others are drawn to the bigger picture: they’re down at the Capitol every chance they get, to press for health-minded public policy. Still others give generously of their resources, so that more in our communities and the wider world are spared the suffering of living with easily-treated, yet life-sapping diseases. I could go on and on. 

The amazing thing about all these ways we might help heal another is that healing flows through and among us precisely when we, too, are among the wounded and know it, when we acknowledge our own need for the healing graces of others and of Christ, even as we’re called to extend it ourselves. 

In closing then, I invite you to name for yourself an area of your life in need of healing, and to bring that need to Jesus now. He already knows, but there is something about acknowledging that need for the first or the hundredth time that opens us to receive him. Say all that you need to say to Him about your pain, or the pain you feel for another. Trust that God does not cause your pain, and wants for you to be well. Perhaps yours is a wound that will heal completely; perhaps it will be a wound that does not heal fully, but through which grace will be revealed to you, and be a source of healing of others. I don’t know. It’s a mystery. But this I know: that there is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal our sin sick souls. There is healing grace, as we open ourselves for the first or the hundredth time to the presence of Jesus in our place of need. 

Consider, too, where you may be called now or in the future to be an instrument of healing for someone else, or a source of comfort in suffering. For as St. Teresa of Avila reminds us, Jesus has no physical body here but ours; no hands and feet on earth but ours. Ours are the voices through which he speaks his healing words of love. So never hesitate to speak a healing word. Yours may be the one that Jesus longs for another to receive. Amen.