Saturday, September 26, 2009

Is Healing Necessary? - A Sermon

One of the most annoying things about Jesus is that he’s always healing people. One touch, and poof, the illness is gone. One touch, and poof, a dear man can hear.

Doesn’t even require a touch for some. Like the woman in today’s gospel - Jesus just says, “Go home, your daughter is healed.”

What’s annoying about this is that, of course, things don’t happen like that for most of us. It gets worse when you read Matthew’s version of this story. After the woman replies that even dogs get to eat what’s under the table, Jesus says, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.”

You see, there it’s all about her faith. Like the mustard seed. You know, when the disciples came back from their mission trip and some hadn’t been able to cure a boy of a deamon, so Jesus had to do it. The disciples asked, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

So, is it faith that heals our bodies? Is the point of the gospel stories simply that if only we had enough faith we could heal better and be healed?

No. Physical healing is never the point. As I’ve said many times before, Jesus did not heal everyone who had faith - and everyone he did heal eventually died. If healing was the sum total of Jesus’ ministry, we would not bother being here.

Healing is just a teaching device. He used it as well as feeding and story telling to help us understand a bit about God. Usually no more than we could digest.

And what is that lesson? Well, look at today’s gospel. First thing to notice is that Jesus is in Tyre. If you look at a map, you’ll see that he’s not really in Israel at all. He’s way up north on the Mediterranean Coast -- pretty much in what would be modern Lebanon. The next thing to notice is that the woman he encounters is Syrophoenician, that is of that region and NOT Jewish.

And yet, Jesus’ reputation for healing precedes him even in these foreign parts. The woman, who is not Jewish, comes to him for help. Contrast that with the Pharisees from just a bit earlier in the chapter who had no interest in the healing Jesus did but were most interested in whether or not he and his disciples washed their hands.

The lesson is not that Jesus heals but that it is a foreigner he heals. When she comes begging for help, he produces those rude words: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” He’s expressing the exact sentiment of most Jews -- most certainly the sentiment of his disciples. Take care of home first. Charity begins at home. Or better yet, don’t bother with outsiders at all. They’re not one of us.

So it is with great intention that Mark includes this story and that famous reply: “Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs under the table.” There is no such thing as someone being left out of God’s grace and mercy.

Let’s be clear on this: the woman was of the wrong faith. She did not become Jewish. She remained a foreigner. Yet she looked to Jesus perhaps as Son of God, perhaps only as divinely connected healer -- and she knew he would help her because she saw mercy as well as power. She saw love and could trust it.

Our lesson then is that healing may or may not come to those who pray. In the end, it doesn’t matter because we will all go the same way. As much as I would love for each of us to be able to heal the sick just by having more faith, in the end, no amount of faith will stop us from returning to the earth.

What our faith can do is increase our appreciation for the breadth of God’s love and mercy. It can help us broaden OUR capacity for love and mercy as well.

By the way, James reminds us that this broader capacity for love is not just to “those out there.” He warns about ignoring those closer to home -- not with charity but with how we treat those who are poor. Because sometimes we treat them as beneath us, and James says that is every bit as sinful as treating the foreigner or the person of a different faith badly.

The end message? Healing is not most importantly of the body. Rather it is if our own prejudice against those different from us. It is healing of our notion that God somehow loves US more. As if God could love one of his children more.