Sermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
The LORD has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.
Thirty years ago I gave birth to my first daughter, Nelleke. She was, of course, perfect – loads of dark brown hair, alert, inquisitive, easily comforted. But when Nelleke was about 18 months old, my mom pulled me aside and in a hushed but concerned voice told me that she thought something was wrong with Nelleke’s eyes. I couldn’t understand what she meant. I had never noticed anything odd.
My mom was right, however. An initial consultation with the ophthalmologist confirmed that the optic nerve in Nelleke’s left eye had never developed. She had no vision in it at all.
We left the doctor’s office that day with an ugly patch covering her right eye – her good eye. “Give it eight weeks and everything should be fine,” the doctor assured us. I’ll never forget watching Nelleke leave that office. She was too little to know what had happened exactly. She moved with caution – one little foot hesitantly feeling for the ground before her, then the other. Slowly, so slowly she moved – hands outstretched trying to find balance, distances, something solid.
We visited the doctor regularly – but eight weeks turned to twelve and twelve to 24 and 24 to 48. Six years and hundreds of patches later, there was still no improvement. The skin around her eye was always raw from the adhesive and when she cried, the patch caught her tears like a dam – and as much as we all hated it, a new patch went on every morning before she got out of bed and wasn’t removed until our good night prayers were said and the lights had been turned off.
When Nelleke was about 7 years old we heard about an ecumenical healing service that was to take place in the town where we were living. It wasn’t at our own church, but it wasn’t in a tent at the fairground either. When we explained what was likely to take place at such a service she, like Bartemaeus, the blind man in our Gospel lesson, had no trouble articulating her desire: “I want to see.” So we went to the service. Nelleke and her dad went forward, hands were laid on her and prayers were said – I remained in my seat with my younger daughter asleep in my arms – grateful for the excuse not to have to march up there myself.
Nelleke’s healing did not happen in an instant – but the next time she went for an exam, the doctor saw the first improvement in her vision in all those long six years – and the improvement continued over the next two years. The prospect of eight weeks of patching had turned to eight years – but the day came when we no longer had to cover that beautiful brown eye. Nelleke could see.
Now, you’ll remember from our Gospel lesson that when Bartemaeus was healed, Jesus credited the healing to Bartemeaus’ faith – which is pretty typical in the healing stories recorded in the scriptures. “Your faith has made you well” – we hear Jesus say that over and over again. Faith.
I’ve wondered this week if that’s the word that trips us up. I wonder if we don’t have too solid an understanding of faith – as if it were a Chevy Truck – you know – built like a rock. What I noticed this week – in the stories of both Bartemeaus and Nelleke – is that the faith they displayed was accompanied by a palpable sense of vulnerability. They knew what they wanted; they knew who to go to. They were both confident and at the same time they were both very vulnerable.
Two years ago, while taking my first theology class, I was talking with some of the other seminarians about what we understand regarding miracles in general and healing in specific. I was surprised to learn that many of my classmates had absolutely no confidence that physical healing – the kind of miracle that Bartemaeus experienced, the kind Nelleke experienced – ever did or ever does happen. We debated whether or not God was able to suspend the laws of nature that were his creation even if he wanted to. What I’ve come to suspect is that it is much easier to be confident in what seems reasonable than it is to be confident in those things that require vulnerability.
Can the proliferation of deadly bacteria and retroviruses be stopped because someone prays that they stop? Can damaged organs regenerate in the blink of an eye? Is it possible that previously non-existent optic nerves suddenly appear and continue to develop in the eye of a seven-year old?
I realized this week that though I’m still hesitant to tell the stories of healing that I’ve observed – especially when it involves my own children, it’s important for me to do just that. For me to be faithful to the Good News means that I, too, must be willing to be vulnerable – to risk being mistaken, to risk being misunderstood, to risk being hurt.
So, here we are – a parish that provides healing prayer nearly every time we get together. I must tell you that the first time I visited St. Paul’s back in the spring, I was struck by the number of healing stations that seemed to pop up out of nowhere. Even more surprising to me was the number of folks who stood in line, waiting to be anointed and have hands laid on them. I wondered then, and I still wonder – even when it’s my finger dipping into the oil – what is it that we’re doing, really?
The answer to that question is, I’m sure as varied as we are in a host of other ways – but this week, I have felt led to pray that God will give each of us enough grace and humility to honor the vulnerability we each bring to this practice. And when we experience the healing love of God, I hope that we will be able to say with confidence and with joy – just like the psalmist – “the LORD has done great things for us and we are glad indeed.” Amen.