The Very Rev. Nathan D. Baxter
In both the Old Testament lesson and the Gospel reading, we have dramatic accounts of healing. Prayer and spirituality as sources of healing are an ambivalent, if comfortable, matter of faith for many modern people, including many Christians. Now at the on set, I must say that I know there are many physician and medical professionals who see prayer as a vital part of their healing vocation, including praying before surgery or holding patients in their personal prayers. I also know that there are many people with personal experiences of healing through prayer. Perhaps there are people here today with such experiences. Still, most are reluctant to speak about that part of their spiritual experience.
Of course, this relates to not wanting to appear religiously primitive or culturally naive in a culture that is experiencing such marvelous medical and technological advances. Because of this we particularly do not wish to be associated with contemporary spectacles of television healing ministries, much less the prevalent cultural humor related to it. Just last week I was shopping for a greeting card when I saw, in the “get well” section, a card with a big beautiful Irish Setter dog pictured on the front. The caption read: “As they said in Obedience School…” I opened the card and it said, “HEAL!”
Nevertheless, I think that an even greater fear of accepting the responsibility that our biblical faith places upon us as a church and as individuals to be sources of God’s healing. In this Cathedral we have healing services every Thursday morning at 7:30 am and every other Sunday evening at 6:30 pm (on intervening Sundays a service of meditation–a healing service of another kind). Still, biblical healing is always about the whole being–not just physical health. In fact one could say that foremost, the Christian understanding of healing is about spiritual and social healing.
Today’s lessons focus upon the healing of two lepers. Leprosy is still a dreaded disease in parts of the world, especially South America, Africa and Asia. In fact, linguists tell us that in many tongues leprosy is translated “the big disease” because it can destroy both the body and the spirit; it robs one of health and social dignity.
The one leper in 2 Kings 5 is a Syrian military commander and beloved national hero (which was evident by the caring concern and encouragement of his servants). His name is Naaman. Not only does Naaman have direct access to his king, but he is also wealthy. On his journey to the find the Samaritan prophet Elisha, Naaman takes a royal letter of introduction, almost $100,000 in silver and gold, ten different changes of fine garments, and an entourage of servants and assistants with horses and chariots. As teenagers would say, he was “living large!” Yes, Naaman was wealthy, politically influential and socially well placed. In fact, his name literally means “delightful,” “pleasant” or “beautiful.” Yes, Naaman was surely one of Syrian society’s “beautiful people.”
Yet, as beautiful and secure as his life may have seemed, the fact was he had leprosy! That dreaded disease, which can grossly deform, disfigure and disable. This is a disease much like modern day AIDS, which is no respecter of people. It can rob one of all the protections of social privileges, leaving one vulnerable to the whims of a society’s fear and prejudice; alienating one from all the things, people and work we love that gives life to our spirits. One sometimes wonders if the spiritual death is worst than the physical.
The story in the Gospel lesson focused upon a man who was clearly not one of society’s “beautiful people.” The man, whom Jesus heals, is of no discernable social significance. Law and social attitudes have driven him into isolation, away from human community. In fact, he is nameless in the story. When he begged of Jesus, “You can make me clean, if you choose,” he was speaking of a social stigma and physical malady. I believe that when Jesus touched the leprous man in the act of healing, he was saying, “I release you from the oppression of social prejudice, ignorance and isolation. You are accepted! Go show your self to the community leaders. Take your place in society and do not be ashamed anymore.”
Although Jesus healed him of his physical ailment, the spiritual healing was clearly foremost. The healing of esteem, seeing oneself as rejoined to the vibrancy of a living community and to God was as important as healing of the body. For example, ten years ago we spoke of people suffering with AIDS as “dying with AIDS.” Today we speak of such people as “living with AIDS.” This is not only a matter of medical advances but of a growing change in the attitude of the sufferer and the community. This is clearly part of the Christian church’s healing ministry. There are many people excluded, ostracized like lepers because of social prejudices. As retrograde as it may sound in this progress era, conditions of physical disability, sexual orientation, poverty, race and color, gender (especially in the workplace), culture and accent are conditions of personal reality that can and do result in isolation in our society, either passively or actively.
There are also those who are self-alienated because of shame, guilt or self hate. We as the faith community can reach out with healing concern and enable their wholeness and inclusion in a living community. Toni Morrison’s book Beloved, which was made into a movie by Oprah Winfrey, is about the tragedy of Sethe, the heroine who had aborted a child in her youth. This haunted her conscience to the point that her shame and guilt became demonic incarnate, demanding all of life’s energy, shutting her off from her daughter, her lover, her community and any personal growth. One day when she was near death of spirit and body, spiritually consumed by the demon, the good Christian sisters of the community got together, marched to her house singing and praying and claimed Sethe as their sister. Taking away the isolation and shame, they drove away the demons and Sethe was reborn! Yes, as the leper said to Jesus, so many are saying to the church: “If you choose, you can make me clean” (i.e., physically, spiritually and socially whole). That is why in our biblical faith healing is always foremost about spiritual healing. As important as physical healing is, healing of the spirit and the soul is always paramount. Whom do we know who needs our healing touches? What situation needs your prayer group, congregation or church to reach out with a healing ministry for the body and spirit.
And what of our own healing needs? Let us return to Naaman and Elisha. Naaman had no idea if this foreign Shaman’s, Elisha’s, magic would work or how he would Elisha would receive a commander from Syria, which had just defeated Samaria. Still, he was not taking any chances, and that is perhaps why he was bringing all of this silver and gold. Perhaps Naaman’s philosophy was like that of a prominent businessperson’s advice to me on recruiting influential volunteers. “Dean,” he said, “people will do along more out of compassion than for money–if they have enough money.”
But it was not the Prophet Elisha’s pride that blocked his healing; it was his own pride. He had decided how his healing should happen, and it did not include dealing with an intermediary or washing repeatedly in some dirty foreign river. When Elisha’s approach did not satisfy his expectation, Naaman was angry and left saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not the rivers … of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?”
As we seek wholeness from God, what needs healing in our spirits? What stands in the way of our finding true peace and well being? Preconceived notions about how religion should work? Limitations about what God can do, should do and where. Are we more concerned about God confirming our pride of place and status (and what our acquaintance will think) than being vulnerable to the Holy Spirit?
I speak not just about physical healing, but the cancer of our spirits such as: old wounds of disappointments and failures, of inordinate fears and insecurities, long-standing anger and bitterness that devour our lives and relationships; often leaving us resplendent shells of dignity–but empty, pained and dying inside. I speak of motional and spiritual scar tissue that keep us from loving ourselves and others; spiritual frustrations that keep us from moving on with life, from embracing God, hope and a deeper faith.
Thirty years ago, during my seminary education, I did my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) studies in a General Hospital. Near the end of my internship, I was assigned to a private cancer ward. There I met Mr. X, a very successful and influential local businessman, who seemed to be in his early sixties..
Nurses were simply distressed–worst patient some of them had ever had. Smoked dreadful cigars. Demanding, foul in speech and attitude, simply difficult. Although he was a very successful and prominent businessman, he had no visitors–neither colleagues nor family. He treated me no better than he treated the medical staff. He never refused my visits but he was always either painfully gruff or just ignored me. Visit by visit on my rounds, I had to drag my self in to his obstinance and abuse presence. I suppose I kept going regularly because my clinical supervisor encouraged me, saying, “You must keep going back, Nathan. He’s hurting.”
One day as he sat ignoring me, cigar clamped in his teeth, I said to him, “Mr. X, you’re angry with God, aren’t you.” He looked startled. “You are dying with cancer and you are angry with God, aren’t you?” Regaining some of his caustic composure, he said to me, “You can’t be angry with God, can you?” I replied that if I were dying, leaving a lifetime of hard work that had now turned successful, I’d be angry. There was silence as he continued an incredulous stare in my direction. I wanted to leave; the tension was palpable. Then I reached out my hand and said, “Let’s tell God how you feel. I’ll pray with you.” He put down his cigar and for the first time we touched–we held hands and we prayed an “angry prayer!” We told God how much we resented having made sacrifices, taken chances, invested everything for our career to have it taken away from us. That it was all that we had, all we had wanted. It was unfair. We didn’t understand any of this, God, and we felt forsaken, betrayed–we’re angry! Help us.
At the end of the prayer there were tears in both our eyes; our palms were sweaty. He mumbled thank you and turned away quietly, laying away from me on his bed. I left. Later that week he told me he had called his pastor to give him communion, the first time in many years. The nurses were amazed by the change in his attitude and behavior toward them. They told me that his family had also began to visit. I don’t know if Mr. X’s cancer was healed, but I do know his soul was healed. I believe God wants us whole so that we can be healers to others.
Remember, there is the healing of social diseases that God wants us to do. There is also the healing of our spirits that God wants to do. Amen.