Sermon preached by the Rev’d Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 12, 2012
Both the Old Testament reading and Gospel today tell stories of healing and transformation. In the times that they occurred, any number of skin diseases could be identified as leprosy, whether or not it was. Leprosy created such hysteria that two whole chapters of the Book of Leviticus are devoted to specific directives about social restrictions placed on those suffering with the disease. Leprosy was regarded as punishment for sin and to be cured of the dreaded ailment was akin to being raised from the dead.
The diagnosis of this disease was relegated to the Temple priests, who were empowered to discern when to pronounce lepers ritually unclean and how to perform rites of purification should they be healed. That’s why in the Gospel story Jesus sent the leper he cured to the priests. People feared lepers and this inexplicable wasting syndrome. Lepers were kept at a distance from the community, had to announce themselves with cries of “Unclean! Unclean!” and lived a life of loneliness and isolation, barred from the rest of the community. They were outcasts in every sense of the word. This man is Mark’s Gospel is not just asking to be cured of his disease; he wants to be cleansed so that he can once again resume his life in the community and, were it not for his victory in battle, I suspect Naaman would have found himself in the same boat.
What is this healing story saying to us who have neither the experience of living with lepers nor have to fear leprosy the way past generations did? I guess I would start by asking when, if ever, have you felt like you were on the outside looking in? Shunned or excluded or avoided or even just totally misunderstood and undervalued? What is it that you most needed at that time in your life?
Jesus gave us this thing called the church to be the vehicle for that kind of healing experience for any one of us—and those wandering around in isolation out there beyond—anyone who needs to feel fully human and fully valued as a unique daughter or son of God.
For the past ten years, the ministry of healing has been front and center in our life together and is offered in a number of ways and, perhaps, most conspicuously and prominently in our Sunday worship where ministers of healing welcome us at every Eucharist for healing prayer. Since our scriptures this morning strongly affirm ministries of spiritual healing, they prompt me to offer a teaching about it for those who have been part of it, those who may be skeptical, and those who wish they understood it better. What does the Episcopal Church teach about the gift of healing that Jesus has given to the church?
The root of the word healing in New Testament Greek, sozo, is the same as that of the words salvation and wholeness. Spiritual healing is God’s work of offering persons balance, harmony, and wholeness of body, mind, spirit, and relationships.
As we have seen over and over again, the New Testament records that Jesus himself healed the estranged and sick and sent out his disciples on ministries of healing. The letter of James calls us also, to pray for and anoint the sick, that they may be healed.
Healing is not magic, but underlying it is the great mystery of God’s love. Leslie Weatherhead, in his classic work Psychology, Religion, and Healing maintained that the healing power of Jesus was “supernatural.” He claimed that it was a “law abiding event by which God accomplishes the Divine purpose of wholeness through the release of energies on a plane of being higher than that which we are normally familiar.” Those who are the ministers of healing in our faith community are channels of God’s love and energy but all healing is of God and not of any human effort or special power.
By empowering us as his disciples with the ministry of healing, Jesus does not promise that we shall be spared suffering but does promise that God will be with us in our suffering. Trusting that promise, we are enabled to recognize God’s sustaining presence in pain, sickness, injury, and estrangement. The Church’s healing ministry in no way detracts from the gifts God gives through medicine and psychotherapy. It is no substitute for either medicine or the proper care of one’s health. Rather, it adds to our total resources for wholeness.
What about the “mechanics” or the ritual in which we participate or which we observe here every Sunday? The laying on of hands on our head or shoulders and the anointing with oil all demonstrate in an outward and very visible way the power of touch, which plays a central role in the healings recorded in the New Testament. Jesus often touched others-blessing children, washing feet, healing injuries or disease, and raising people from death.
This Biblical precedent combines with our natural desire to reach out to persons in need in prompting us to touch gently and lovingly those who ask for healing prayers. Such an act is a tangible expression of the presence of the healing Christ, working in and through those who minister in his name.
Anointing the forehead with oil is a sign act invoking the healing love of God. The oil points beyond itself and those doing the anointing to the action of the Holy Spirit and the presence of the healing Christ, who is, God’s Anointed One.
There has been some controversy over the course of time about including the rite of healing in the context of the Eucharist. The Eucharist has always been the central act of worship and the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist has traditionally been understood as one given for the healing of body and soul.
In the Eucharist, we proclaim the healing presence of Jesus and the healing power of his love. We might frame the Eucharist and the Rite of Healing as a seamless garment of God’s healing grace. Offering prayer and anointing for healing during the Sunday worship provides an additional outward sign of that healing grace for the whole community.
And there it is—the all important understanding of “community”—that we are not alone or isolated and that God values each of us as the unique person we are and gives us the community of faith in which to find support and care and joy.
The same dynamic that was present in the story of Naaman of Syria occurs right here in this community. There are those of us who can testify to having been touched by God, maybe in ways we cannot begin to explain, in the ministry of ordinary persons through whom God chooses to work. Through the stories of healing we encounter in the Gospel we are invited to enter into the realm of the “impossible” to see God in action—but on God’s terms, not ours, and God’s terms involve an ordinary-looking, lowly suffering man from Nazareth and the ordinary, lowly, suffering people through whom he works.