Healing and Wholeness:
Surprised by Healing

Crossing the Threshold, Jan Richardson, janrichardson.com

Third Sunday in Lent • March 4, 2018
Recommended Readings: Mark 5:25-34
Scott Sprunger, guest preacher  

          What does it mean to be healed? What does it look like to live into the wholeness that God has prepared for your life- that God is always inviting you into? I want you to really take a moment to think about this because all of us have been sick at some point and all of us have been cured at some point, but some of us are still figuring out what it means to be healed. 

          What’s more, the vision of healing sold to us by mainstream society is a very shallow one. Every day on tv ads and billboards I see new and exciting images of health. If I only take this one pill, or buy this one mattress, or join this one celebrity diet plan, I can be young, fit, and beautiful forever.

          But in reality, we know that, even under the best circumstances, our bodies grow and change over time. Eventually, all of us find out what it’s like to be wounded or sick, and even what it’s like to die. And if your definition of health is so narrow that it can only be satisfied by finding the fountain of youth, then you will spend the rest of your life feeling disappointed in yourself and frustrated with God. But if you believe that healing is possible, and that being healed is so much more than being cured, then you may find a sense of peace, and even wholeness, in the midst of illness.

          I want to push us this morning to understand the difference between simply being cured, which is the removal of the thing that is making us sick, and healing, which means entering into a new fullness of life. I want us to believe that healing is always possible. I want us to be open to the possibility that when it finally comes, it may not look like we ever imagined. I want us to be open to being surprised by healing, to being surprised by different kinds of healing. I want us to come to know a God that is full of surprises.

          When my father was an infant, he contracted polio, a disease which is virtually eradicated today. He probably got it from a mosquito bite. In those days, the polio vaccine was a relatively new invention. It’s possible he never received it but more likely the polio vaccine he did receive had been stored at an improper temperature. The polio virus infected his legs, rendering them paralyzed. My grandparents discovered the paralysis one day when they were tickling his feet. He reacted by laughing, but he didn’t move his legs in response.

          His whole life, my father has walked with the use of crutches and braces that he wears on his legs. Altogether, my family life has been pretty normal. There are some things my father can’t do. But there are a lot of things he can. And when we encounter an obstacle, we find a way around it, just like any family.

          One thing that’s not normal is that people often feel entitled to approach him in public with the promise of a new cure for his condition. Sometimes they’re religious and they tell my dad that his legs can be healed through prayer and turning away from sin. Sometimes, they’re not religious and they explain that they know a doctor who’s really good and may be able to cure him. Either way, both groups operate from the assumption that there’s something wrong with him and that he must be fixed. My father usually listens patiently and waits for them to finish.

         One night my family was visiting Atlanta for a conference. We were riding in the hotel elevator when a stranger noticed my father’s crutches. “We’re having a service of healing at my church tonight,” she said. My father nodded politely. “If you come tonight, you’ll be able to walk again” My father thanked her for the advice but she continued. “If you only turn your life over to God, you will be healed.” At that point my mom grew frustrated. She turned to the stranger and told her, “he already is healed.”

          Those words continue to echo through my mind. This stranger clearly had the best of intentions. She wanted nothing more than for my father to be healed. And yet, her understanding of what it means to be healed was so limited. If my father had gone to that healing service, he probably wouldn’t gained the ability to walk. In which case, the people gathered at the church would have either blamed God for not curing him or, more likely, blamed my father for not believing hard enough.

          I don’t want us to be too hard on this woman. When confronted with our own brokenness, be it a physical illness or a broken relationship or woundedness in our own souls, how often do we look first for easy answers and then for blame? It’s the most natural thing in the world because, in the face of extraordinary pain and trauma, it gives us a sense of control. If only we know who to blame, whether it’s God or another person or ourselves, then it gives our suffering a straightforward meaning.

          This is something we see in the Bible all the time. At one point Jesus and his disciples saw a man who had born blind. Jesus’ own disciples turned him and asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” But Jesus doesn’t indulge this blaming thought experiment. He said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

          Jesus understood something that is hard for us to wrap our minds around. When we encounter our own brokenness, the first thing we want is to go back to the time before we knew the pain. Once we realize that’s impossible, we begin to ask who is at fault. But Jesus knew that as long as you’re focused on blaming, you cannot begin the journey of healing. And this journey of healing can look like different things to different people. Healing can take on different forms. This what Jesus meant when he said that “God’s works would be revealed” in the blind man. 

          In the case of my father, the healing he received didn’t come from recovering the use of his legs. But my father is living a full and rewarding life. He has a beautiful family. He has a job that is meaningful. And he has touched the lives of countless people. How is that not a form of healing? How is that not the highest form of healing? To love and be loved and to make the world a better place— not in spite of suffering, but because of it. 

          Suffering is one of the few things in this life that is guaranteed. And when we come to know suffering, we can only choose how to respond to it. We can look for an easy cure. Or we can find somebody to blame. Or we can open ourselves to the work God is doing in our lives. We can be surprised by healing.

          This morning, Anne read the story of a courageous woman. It’s a shame her name was never written down because, nearly two thousand years later, she continues to inspire us with her faith and dedication. In fact, she was had more faith in Jesus than his own disciples. She was suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. Let me say that again. She was suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had visited every kind of doctor, she had spent all her money on treatments, and yet, for twelve years she remained sick. But, after all that time, she never gave up on her faith. She never gave up on the possibility that one day, she could be made whole. 

          Twelve years!? I would have given up hope within twelve months.

           I wonder what passed through her mind when she heard Jesus was visiting. She had every right to be cynical. For over a decade she tried every medication available. Nothing worked. If anybody is allowed to give up hope in the possibility of God’s radical healing power it is this woman. And yet she was healed. Not in spite of her faith but because of it. This woman’s hope became the very channel through which she experienced the healing power of God.

           And though our own healing journeys may look radically different than hers, she serves as an example for finding the path to healing. If we learn to follow her lead, then we can learn a lot about what it means to be made whole. First of all, this is a woman who believed that healing was possible. Having faith in God’s healing power is more than just something you do in your mind. It’s a way of orienting oneself. It’s a mode of living. It’s waiting in breathless expectation for what God is going to do through you. This may seem simple but this is the really hard part. Because having faith is most difficult when we are surrounded by suffering. If you’re waiting on healing now, it’s okay if you don’t feel like this all the time. I’m sure the woman in this scripture had good days and bad days. But in the end she did not give herself over to cynicism. That would be too easy. She continued to hold on to the radical hope that, no matter how desperate her situation, healing could be possible.

           At the same time, I think that when she joined the massive crowd trying to get closer to Jesus, she didn't know yet how she would be healed. Even as she held onto the hope that healing would be possible, she didn’t yet know what form it would take. This woman carried a sense of openness. She was open to being healed. She was open to whatever healing might look like. She was even open to the possibility that healing may not look like she previously imagined. Remember this woman had seen every kind of doctor. And in the end she was healed by touching the clothes of a carpenter-turned-preacher. Indeed, healing can come from very unexpected places.

           The hard lesson in this is that sometimes healing doesn’t mean that the difficult things in your life suddenly disappear. In fact, they probably won’t. Remember, healing is so much deeper and more profound than simply being cured. But it does mean that, in spite of the difficulties that life throws at you, you can still find wholeness and meaning and peace. It is entirely possible to be cured without ever really being healed. This means that you’re still living in the fold of old wounds. If you are cured but you’re unwilling to do the work of being healed, then you will still continue to define yourself in relation to your own woundedness, and you’ll never truly escape it. 

           Remember, healing can look like different things so it’s important not to compare our own healing journeys with someone else’s. In some ways, we are all figuring out, with God and with one another, what it means to be whole. So we have to be open to being surprised by healing. Because no one person has it all figured out.

            But the woman in this story was more than just open to healing, she had the courage to reach for it. When Jesus felt the healing power leave his body, he turned to his disciples and asked, “who touched my clothes?” And his disciples are incredulous. “Who touched your clothes!? How can you ask that? You’re in the middle of a huge crowd!” In my head, I imagine this scene happening in the subway station at times square. But Jesus knows that he has been touched by someone who yearned for healing enough to risk failure and public embarrassment. Last week, Pastor Ronneak reminded us that, in order to find healing, we must be willing to surrender ourselves to God. The woman in this story shows us that surrendering to God requires true courage.

           I want to be like this woman. I want to learn how to have faith in God’s healing, even when it feels impossible. I want to be open to healing, even when I don’t know what that healing will look like, even when it means something different, something more, than being cured. And I want to have the courage reach for healing, to reach for the clothes of Jesus in my time of need.

           Last summer, I worked as a chaplain in the cancer ward of a hospital in rural Pennsylvania. I met a lot of patients there, some dealing with a new diagnosis, others who had received chemotherapy treatments for years, and some who were nearing death. What I discovered is that, at the end of life, some people grow angry and resentful about the fact that they won’t live longer. But some people, when they reach the end of their journey, simply glow. They are at peace with the lives they lived and the people they loved. Even as their bodies grow weaker, their souls remained strong and hopeful.

          The weird thing was— this had absolutely nothing to do with age. I’ve met 90 year olds who wished, more than anything, to live longer. And I’ve met 30 year olds who were at peace with the time they had. And so I wondered, for my own sake if nothing else, how to become one of those people who, even in the midst of dire circumstances, finds themself at peace.

          The patients who had this kind of spiritual fortitude weren’t always at peace. They were still learning how to embrace wholeness, even at the end of life. But they were still open to it. Like the courageous woman, they were open healing, even when a cure was impossible.

          When you come to God in prayer it is a powerful thing. Because if you pray for healing, and you believe that healing truly is possible, you will receive it. But it may not look like the healing you wanted. In fact, it probably won’t be. What’s more, you may not be prepared to receive the kind of healing that God will give you. Those of you have been through physical therapy or in recovery from addiction know that sometimes healing, true and genuine healing, can be a painful thing. That’s why so many of us choose to live in the comfort of our own woundedness. 

          But of course, God’s healing is so much bigger than us as individuals. Our relationships need healing, our communities need healing, the nations of this world need healing, and the Earth itself needs healing. This is not something we can do on our own. The very nature of the task ahead of us requires that we heal together. That it is not enough to find healing for yourself without turning back and helping those who are still waiting to be healed. Health is something that doesn’t belong to any one person. It’s something we find together. This why we share communion with one another. So that we always remember— your healing is my healing, and my healing is yours. We walk this journey together. And if we are lucky, we may be surprised by the healing that God has in store for us.