Is it true? Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian of a few decades ago, used to say that whenever we come to church we have one great question in our hearts, and every preacher in every sermon should address it: Is it true?
Few texts make us wrestle with that question more readily than the healing stories we just heard. Jesus enters Simon and Andrew’s house, learns that Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever, and he takes her by the hand, lifts her up, and the fever is gone. And before the day is out, crowds of the sick and wounded flock to Jesus for healing.
Now this is strange territory for many of us modern types who are confident that we live in a closed universe of space, time, and matter, where no intrusion from outside is possible. Many secretly believe that God has long since retired from being involved in the world. A few centuries ago the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote a book called
Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone to make that clear. Only reasonable things can be true.
These healing stories seem to belong to an ancient world or to the faith healers we may catch on an obscure cable channel. Give us Jesus the ethical teacher, the moral example. That we can deal with. But we cannot read the New Testament without being struck time and again by the centrality of Christ’s healing ministry. Nearly one-fifth of the entire gospel narratives are devoted to accounts of Jesus’ healing and casting out demons.
It seems that Jesus came not simply to offer wise teachings, but to give people access to a power that heals and saves. When people opened their lives and were touched by him, they came away stronger and more whole.
Of course it is hard for us to imagine physical healing beyond trips to the doctor and the hospital. Aren’t our bodies more or less like machines that need a mechanic — a knife, some chemicals — to fix them? But the evidence continues to mount that our souls and bodies are deeply interconnected.
A 1995 study at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center found among a group of heart surgery patients that those who drew no comfort and strength from a religious faith had three times the death rate of those who did.
Other studies have shown that men and women who attend church regularly have half the risk of dying from coronary-artery disease as those who rarely go to church. A survey of 30 years of research on blood pressure showed that churchgoers have lower blood pressure than non-churchgoers. Have you checked yours lately?
A National Institute on Aging study of 4,000 elderly people living at home in North Carolina found that those who attend religious services regularly are less depressed and physically healthier than those who don’t or who worship at home. And there is a great deal of research indicating that personal prayer can be a key element in the healing process.
If our bodies are purely machines, how can it be that 35% of patients experience substantial healing with placebos, medications with no intrinsic healing properties. The expectation of healing alone has healing power. The writer Lewis Thomas has suggested that until well into the twentieth century the main good that doctors did for patients was to care about them, touch them, and give them the hope and expectation of getting well — and it worked. Hope, in fact, is one of the world’s best medications.
In short, our bodies, minds, and spirits are deeply interconnected. When a spirit of peace and hope moves through the human spirit, powers for healing are unleashed.
Two stories. He fought colon cancer for two years, and his wife never left his side. They had two young kids who could barely comprehend anything except that Daddy was sick all the time. There was never any good news, just complications and failed efforts to slow down the disease. But through it all this intense, focused venture capitalist grew calmer, less insistent, more relaxed inside his skin. His faith grew deeper and stronger. He and his wife had always been close, but now the bond between them was something to behold. The church was galvanized in praying for him. His dying was heartbreaking and still is, but the love that surrounded him and filled his spirit was palpable.
Another time and place. The oncologist told her he was out of options in fighting her oral cancer. She couldn’t take any more radiation or chemo, after months of hard-hitting treatments. Friends, family, several churches prayed for her constantly. But the doctors surprisingly found something else to try, and as weeks turned into months it began to appear that the cancer had receded. That was eight years ago. She says to this day that as awful as her cancer battle has been, it has given her gifts of faith, gratitude, and clarity she would never have gotten any other way.
Both of these people had been surrounded by prayer. For one of them there was what seems to be a cure. For the other there wasn’t. But for both there was healing. Both found a new peace within themselves and a new closeness to God, something different and deeper than a miraculous cure. Both found healing. One found a cure.
I suspect that there isn’t a person here this morning who hasn’t at some time longed for healing for themselves or someone they love. We have heard the doctor matter-of-factly deliver the bad news. We have lingered in the hospital waiting rooms. We have said I would give anything for her to be well again, or for me. We long for a healing spirit to work in our bodies and spirits.
There are other dimensions of healing too. For all of our increased life expectancy, for all of medicine’s capacity to keep us going well into our 80s and beyond, it is not at all clear that we are healthier in our families, our workplaces, in our souls, among our friends, or in our society than those who have gone before us.
A recent Louis Harris poll reported that 86% of Americans experience chronic stress. One out of four feels what the poll describes as “being stressed and stretched into exhaustion.” The six great killers — heart disease, cancer, circulatory problems, accidents, cirrhosis, suicide — all have profound psychosomatic connections.
The relatively new science of psycho-neuroimmunology has been making vital connections between our emotional lives and the capacity of our bodies to resist the invasion of disease. They point out, for example, that the likeliness of our getting sick rises sharply during and after the turmoil of divorce, a job loss, or a move. When our lives are in disarray, our bodies are affected too.
But our need for healing goes deeper yet. There can be no healing of the stress and tension in our lives without the healing of our own anxious, insecure souls. And there can be no healing of our souls apart from the slow healing of a society where all of our inner wounds get acted out. A frantic, driven, violent, greedy society produces stressed out, hostile, anxious people.
But to find that kind of health and wholeness we need help. Jesus saw his whole ministry as in many ways a great work of healing. For centuries Christians often referred to him as the Great Physician. He would nearly always touch the person he was healing. Touch itself is a vital channel for healing power. Then he would with confidence cast out a demon or call on God to heal them. He was creating a sense of expectant trust in those to whom he ministered, as if to say, if you will orient your whole being toward hope that God’s life is in you, toward expectation, if you can at the deepest level of your being trust that the Power behind the universe is for you and desires your well-being, then you will unleash a powerful potential for healing in you.
Of course for Christians today the essential channel of God’s healing is the work of the medical profession. The Great Physician works through the surgeon’s scalpel and the right medication. But at the frontier of medicine is an open admission that technology and drugs do not alone bring healing. How we eat, how we live, how our minds and spirits are oriented, have major impacts too. Healing, like living, is a process, and its deepest healing involves putting life together with the source.
My guess is that what keeps so many of us from praying for healing is our fear that our prayers won’t make a difference. When we pray for healing, we become co-workers with God for that person’s health. Sometimes people get better and sometimes they don’t. In a world where God gives all of reality tremendous freedom, disease can overwhelm even God’s will for our health and healing. But even as our bodies may succumb to disease, we can grow in trusting that love that will heal us beyond this life if not in this one.
Our nation’s body needs healing too. It needs a spirit of hope and peace and community to spread through its life, drawing people into finding ways to connect, to support each other, and to sense that they aren’t alone. Did you notice that at the end of our lesson, Jesus steps away from the cries for healing first to pray, then to preach? Real healing will entail more than repaired bodies. It requires holy, repaired human spirits.
I believe that in this time especially this Cathedral is called to be a house of healing, a place where pilgrims and worshipers can find peace, a place where people from across the nation can reflect and pray as our country makes its way forward, a place where prayer and worship can provide access to Christ’s healing spirit to sustain them through hard times.
Every Sunday we encounter the Great Physician, this Savior who desires our wholeness and our holiness. Every Sunday it is as if Christ stands in our midst, ready to give us the peace and strength we need. We come for our weekly dose of words and music, and of the bread and wine of the Eucharist, what the ancient church called “the medicine of the soul.” Some will come forward for healing prayers, and words prayed and a hand laid on a shoulder become Christ’s presence again. All of us can perhaps glimpse here a peace that passes understanding.
Let me leave you this morning with a simple picture of the work the Great Physician is doing. Richard Selzer, a distinguished surgeon and Yale medical professor, wrote in his book Mortal Lessons about having to operate on a young woman with a cancerous growth on her cheek. In doing that he had to cut the nerve which controlled the muscles of her mouth.
When she looked at her misshapen mouth in the mirror, she asked the doctor if it would always be that way, and he said yes. She then nodded and lay there quietly. But her young husband in a moment bent over her and smiled and said, “I like it.” Then he shaped his mouth to hers and kissed her, to show her that their kiss still worked. Selzer wrote that he felt as though he were in the presence of God.
And of course he was. Because the work of the Great Physician is to come to us in the twisted shapes of our lives, to shape his love to fit us, and to pour his love into us. May this healing power be yours.