Ministry: Bringing Healing and Wholeness to the World
A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, Febuary 15, 2009
Text: Mark 1:40-45
If you were to find yourself in the gospel story we just heard, who would you be? The leper? Since few of us have had any contact with leprosy, I doubt that we would relate to him all that quickly. Jesus? Since even fewer of us experience the power to heal miraculously, my guess is that we don’t readily see ourselves as Jesus. Are you an onlooker, curious about what is happening, saying to yourself, “Nah. No such thing. You can’t heal leprosy that way. Man ought to see a doctor.” Or maybe one of the disciples, saying, “Wow! That’s amazing!” Or are you one of the hundreds who heard the newly healed former leper advertising Jesus and wondered if it was true, or if such a thing could happen to you?
There is, of course, no right or wrong answer, just the truth of where the story sits closest to you. But how might we begin to see ourselves if we were to approach the story as a commentary on ministry? What I have in mind is to look at the story through the lens of what it has to say about what you and I might understand about our own ministry as Christians. In fact, I want to make today the first of a series of sermons that look at ministry from various angles. The reason grows out of two experiences I had last year. One was the experience of preaching a series of sermons on Christian practices. I began it in July and continued it through All Saints in November. It was the first time I had done such a thing. It transformed the way I approach preaching. And, if I may say, judging from the number of comments and questions that you voiced to me as we dealt together with some of those topics (discernment, confession, stewardship, proclamation), I would say that those sermons worked to stir up a fair amount of conversation, which is what one hopes sermons in fact might do from time to time. The other experience was the event we shared in October when in a parish-wide conversation as a part of my doctoral program at Virginia Seminary I heard you clearly saying that you wanted to focus more on the issues of the ministry that we share. So I have set myself the goal of looking at least through Easter, and possibly beyond, at the scriptures through this lens: what does this say about ministry?
Now, I have to admit “ministry” is an awfully churchy word. While many of us in this congregation use it easily, it is not lost on me that a good many people simply don’t think of anything they do as “ministry.” If you are in that group, you are not alone. So let’s start with the fact that “ministry” needs a little explaining. To begin with, ministry does not refer to the activity of the clergy. Clergy participate in ministry, but primarily because ministry is something that we all share—and not just those in the Church, but all people everywhere. Ministry is the work we do, the things we say, the activities we engage in, the people we relate to. What makes it Christian, if it is Christian, is not ordination into the ranks of clergy but that it glorifies the God we know through Jesus Christ. The great symbol of the life of ministry, and the effective gateway into it, is baptism. When we are baptized, we join the ranks of those who expressly commit to live the way Jesus lived and minister the way Jesus ministers. That means we practice our ministry—or at least aim to—by making God’s love the focus and motive of all we do. It means that our ministry is transparently one of forgiveness and reconciliation. It means that our ministry has to do with sitting down and eating, literally, with anybody and everybody. It means that we spend considerable energy on getting to know the outcasts and marginal people in society. It means that we pray with some concentration and regularity. It means that we keep pointing beyond ourselves to the God who embraces the whole creation. And it means that we heal.
Healing characterized the ministry of Jesus. There is no doubt about that. While Jesus was not the only known healer of his day, he definitely generated a whole cycle of stories with his astonishing healing. In Mark’s gospel, however, Jesus makes clear—more or less—that healing was tangential to his ministry of proclaiming the Good News, not the other way around. In this healing story, Jesus does what he frequently does when he heals: he brings someone out of a state of isolation and reintegrates them into the community. Healing in these stories is rarely a matter of simply curing a bodily ailment. Jesus’ healing is a way of restoring a person to wholeness. Hence the stories often include a reference to sins being forgiven or faith being involved in wellness. So, if we style our ministry after Jesus’, we will be healers intent on helping to bring about wholeness.
That might seem a stretch for you. Let’s look a bit more deeply into the whole matter of healing. One of the issues that always comes up when we read and talk about The New Testament is how differently people thought about sickness and healing in those days from how we think about them now. In a way we seem to be far removed from the world of exorcism, leprosy, and a number of the things that were current in Jesus’ day. What has happened, more than anything else, is that during the intervening centuries, we have adopted a medical model for understanding healing, and generally (at last in our part of the world) we have approached all sickness and all healing as if they were somewhat mechanical processes that, through medical science, we can manage, at least theoretically. Medicine is valuable, even essential. But anyone who practices modern medicine will quickly tell you how much is trial and error, how much we still don’t know, and how mysterious are the factors that go into a person’s healing. I think of Larry Dossey, a physician who started out several years ago to write a treatise debunking the notion that prayer is an effectual component in healing. In his research, which was honest enough, Dossey confronted evidence that he did not expect: namely, that prayer has a very salient effect on the healing process in countless instances.
There is another kind of healing experience. Let us call it spiritual healing. It includes things like mental and emotional health that certainly have a relationship with bodily health, but are not quite the same as the wellness or sickness of a kidney. They have to do with attitudes, behaviors, life patterns and positions. Sometimes those things can be deleterious for an individual, as for example, we can see in the case of addictions. And sometimes we can be healed of those diseases of the spirit, which almost always leave some mark on the body, too. We take it for granted now. But back in the 1930’s, it was very courageous of many churches, especially Episcopal churches, to house Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. To this day, countless AA and NA groups, and other 12-step programs, find homes within Episcopal parishes because we recognized early on that the church had a vocation to support and engage in the kind of spiritual healing that goes on in AA.
There is a third kind of healing, which certainly overlaps with the latter. And that is what we can call “sacramental healing.” Every week at the end of our 10:30 liturgy, whoever wishes to do so may come to the side altar for prayers of healing and the laying on of hands. For years this has been a major part of my ministry. I cannot begin to tell you in the context of this (or any) sermon all the things that I have learned and experienced through the laying on of hands with prayer for healing. But I can tell you this: lives have been changed, beginning with mine. For something like 500 years, Christians assumed that the Body of Christ (namely the Church) was on this earth to heal as much as Jesus healed. People went to church and prayed expecting to be healed. And record after record indicates that they were. And then what always seems to happen in the church happened. Somebody tried to regularize it so it wouldn’t get out of hand. And the spontaneity fled. The Church might have gained control, but it soon lost a sense of its vocation to be a healing community.
But if something, like healing, is authentic to the life of the Church, it will pop up from time to time, in one form or another. And so healing did. It appeared in charismatic and Pentecostal revivals. It began to appear in the work of individual healers, many of whom conventional rationalists dismissed as charlatans (and some of whom might have been). Gifts of healing began to occur in strange places like in prayer groups of women in The Episcopal Church, led by people like Helen Shoemaker and Polly Wiley, and more recently, Avery Brooke, names that some of you will recognize and some of you know personally.
I believe that what all this is about is the Presence of the Spirit of God in our lives and in our midst. The Spirit eventually breaks down barriers, opens minds, melts stony hearts, and frees captives. It is not opposed to conventional medical healing but rather part and parcel of it. The Spirit, interestingly, is teaching us that healing is not about keeping bodies from dying. It is about making people whole, just as Jesus did. We all die eventually, and the point of the healing ministry is not to forestall death as long as possible. Nor is it to get us to believe that death is somehow a flaw in creation. Rather, the focus of healing is to enable us to embrace our mortality, allowing the Spirit of God so to infuse us that our bodies, our minds, our souls are relieved of all those things we could do to fight our humanity, and thus freed to live as whole human beings as much as possible. Let me say that again: the focus of healing is to enable us to embrace our mortality rather than fight it, so that we can be as whole as possible.
But our ministry of healing is not just a matter of becoming more whole ourselves. Our ministry is to take the healing to what we call “the world.” And by that I mean to the places where Jesus was always meeting God: the deserted places and the streets. When we work for justice, we are engaged in the healing of society. When we act for peace, whether individually or as a part of a mass movement, we are working for the healing of the world. What we might well do is to consider the things we have learned about how healing and wholeness happen in places like our altar, and translate that into the way we live in our work, in our play, in our social circles. A short list of some of those things would include touch, prayer, listening, caring, and being connected. What might happen if we kept those things in mind every day as some of the ways in which we could actually bring about the healing and wholeness of our world?
Most commentators on this passage have spent a lot of words on the question of why Jesus was so insistent that the healed leper and many others not broadcast the healing incidents. That is a good question, and one to which there is no single definitive answer. But another question almost no one asks is what the healed leper said and what others heard. We can only imagine. But I think we can trust our imagination and fairly conclude that the man said something like, “You wouldn’t believe what happened to me—yes, I am that leper you knew and shunned. That man Jesus healed me.” And I suspect we can trust our imagination when it envisions a host of people saying, “We’ve got to see this. We can use some of that.” It’s crass. But it’s human. And, in a way, that is what will ultimately heal the world: enough people saying, “Here’s what happened to me.” And enough others saying, “That is what we need, too.” Maybe the proclamation that Jesus was so intent on getting on with was in fact helped by this excited, disobedient, joy-filled man. And it could be sped along, too, when you spread the word: “Have I got some Good News to share. This old world, like this old body, can be whole once more. You can believe it.”
© Frank G. Dunn, 2009