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.
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.