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Fourth Sunday in Easter – May 12, 2019
The original working title for this sermon series “What the Bible Does Not Say” was actually “Bad Theology.” I thought that, in many ways, it would be fun to promote, as in “Come back to worship at Reveille after Easter for some bad theology!”
I perhaps could have gotten away from it were it not for this morning’s sermon, which engages the saying “God needed another angel.” In considering this series as a whole, I realized that much of what I was only half-seriously labeling “bad theology” are actually sayings that have brought people measures of comfort during exceedingly difficult days. It may have helped someone frame a painful time in life to tell themselves “Everything happens for a reason.” The saying “The Lord helps those who help themselves” may have provided just the right motivation for someone to do something important, and imagining a dearly departed loved one as an angel among the angels of the heavenly host may have been all that enabled you to survive an inexpressibly painful loss.
So then, if God has used these extra-biblical sayings to bless you in some important way, then I say, “Glory to God.” However, given what each of these platitudes articulates, were they true, about the nature of who our God truly is, I would strongly warn against saying them to someone else, and this is no truer about any of them than the one I am addressing this morning.
When I was twenty-four and in my second year of seminary, I was the student associate pastor of a small congregation in rural western North Carolina. One night, a couple in the church invited me to their home for dinner, and afterward we sat in the living room and talked. I was aware that this couple had, in the not too distant past, tragically lost an infant. I knew this because they were very open about it. Yet as we sat in the front room, with its white walls, white carpet, and white furniture, the mother looked me in the eyes and said, “The reason I am a Christian is so that when I die, I can walk through those heavenly gates to the heavenly nursery and get my daughter back.”
I have never been able to forget that story – and not only the passion with which it was told, but the certainty of it. God was a god who preserved in the next world what could not be saved in this one, and Heaven was indeed the paradise that Jesus promised as he hung on the cross. It is one thing to believe in God’s promises. It is another thing to trust them, and it is still another to count on them in the absolute way this woman did.
Indeed, it was not the best theology I heard while in seminary, but it was indeed the most real.
When I read texts like today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, I am struck by how Jesus chose to manage his limited time on earth. Had he so desired, he could have spent the entirety of his time teaching, perhaps penning a systematic theology, going out his way to compose a catechism to answer the numerous questions about religion that have served to divide his church throughout history, even to today. He could have spent his time in the halls of power, bringing change to his world from the top down. He could have given his life to plotting the political revolution that so many people, especially at the very end, expected of him. He could even have been a recluse, devoting his time to solitude and prayer, as he did from time to time.
Likewise, it became clear early on that there was something very special about Jesus, clear that he enjoyed a unique relationship with the Divine which manifest itself not only in wisdom but in miraculous power. In the third chapter of John’s gospel, Nicodemus, a leader of the Pharisees, comes to Jesus under the cover of night to speak to him, and he begins by saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
It was so clear to the people who surrounded Jesus that he was not merely skilled, he was powerful. Jesus could fast for forty days and forty nights. He could have, had he chosen, turned stones to bread or leapt from the pinnacle of the Temple. He rendered water into wine. After his resurrection, he passed through walls. He fed the multitudes with only morsels, and he taught, the people said, as one with such authority. As word of Jesus’ power spread, it was becoming more and more evident that there was little, if anything that Jesus could not do.
So, the people could have asked him for anything, anything at all: Enlarge my harvest, Jesus. Make me powerful and mighty, Jesus. Give me immense riches, Jesus. Make me popular and successful, Jesus. Give me what I want Jesus.
And yet, more than anything else, what did the people who walked the earth with Jesus ask of him? Heal our sick, Jesus. Save our lives. Cast out our demons. Make us well. By my count, there are forty-one stories of healing in the four gospels and over a dozen of them are stories where he healed so many people that the gospel writers did not list a number, only describing “multitudes” or “great crowds.” Of the 3,779 verses in the four gospels, 727 relate specifically to his healing physical illness and the resurrection of the dead. The gospels give more attention to Jesus’ ministry of healing than any other single thing, even more than salvation itself.[i] Jesus was so full of healing power that in Luke 8, a woman who had been ill for twelve years is healed just by coming behind him and touching the fringe of his garment. He heals Jew and Gentile alike, and he and weeps at the death of his friend Lazarus, who he then raises from the dead.
This, sisters and brothers, is not the witness of a God who steals our precious ones, who causes us the great and lasting pain of grief in order to decorate the heavens or add to the multitudes of the heavenly host because God somehow “needs to.”
When I was pastoring another congregation, I was given the opportunity to reconnect with a couple I met thirty years ago when I started college. They were now married and had three beautiful small children, all girls. The mother was the original board chairperson of the preschool we helped to found. She was in church nearly every Sunday.
Not long after their third was born, the mother was diagnosed with an advanced, aggressive form of cancer, cancer she would eventually survive. Yet one Sunday, soon after her initial, dire diagnosis, when everything was so uncertain, I was leading worship in that church. I remember it was a Service of Word and Table and I was serving communion. I prayed the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving, led the congregation in the Lord’s Prayer, and invited the people to come forward to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion.
I watched as the people came to the center aisle and began to shuffle forward, and I saw her standing there, a baby in her arms, two toddlers by her side, holding one by the hand, all three children in matching flower dresses. And I stood there, holding the body of Christ, literally holding the bread of life in my hands, and I remember suddenly, unexpectedly, and angrily praying to God “If you lay one finger on her, if you let any measure of harm come to this woman, you and I are done.”
I was taken aback, taken aback by my own hostility towards God, especially the timing of it, right there in the middle of celebrating the Eucharist. I was taken aback because I was someone who has been presiding at funerals, burying people for literally half of my life. I was taken aback because I have lost friends, sat with the dying and ministered to both the sick and the grieving. Even then, sickness and death and I were well acquainted.
I stood there, incredulous at my own anger at sickness and death, and then the thought crossed my mind, “What if this anger is how Jesus felt, how Jesus feels in the presence of our sickness, our death?” What if this is what the psalmist meant in Psalm 116 in that strange, almost misplaced-seeming fifteenth verse that reads “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones?” Perhaps this is why Jesus wept so loudly at the grave of Lazarus that even Jesus’ ardent opponents had to admit “See how he loved him!”
And perhaps it is true that those who walked the dusty roads of Galilee with Jesus knew this about him as well, knew it well enough to place their friend on a mat, to carry him through town until they found the Lord. They knew it well enough to climb atop the roof and lower him before Jesus, letting nothing stand in the way of their loved one experiencing the healing grace they knew filled this unique and special rabbi of God, this man who knew our needs before we ask, even our ignorance in asking.
To examine what was asked the most of Jesus and what he spent so much of his time doing shows that our God truly knows what is most important to us, and God cares enough, even enough to die on a cross to bring to bear, life, healing, and life everlasting with new lives and new resurrection bodies, bodies by God’s grace made whole. Heal our sick, Jesus. Save our lives. Cast out our demons, Make us well.
To be ordained in the United Methodist Church, one must complete a course called Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE. Most often, this is completed in a hospital setting while one is still in seminary. I completed my course at the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina on a fourth-floor hospital wing divided between family medicine and neurology.
One of the first and most important lessons I learned during this chaplaincy was how to relate pastoral care to Christian theology. My cohort and I were warned that at some point, a patient would inevitably say something to us along the lines of “I must have done something really terrible for God to do this to me.”
“Because you are students of theology,” our instructor warned us, “you will feel a need to leap into the conversation and defend God. You will want to tell them that they are incorrect, and that God is a god of grace who does not operate that way.”
“Don’t do it,” she said, “a person who says such a thing is often not accusing God. Instead, they are searching for God, searching for how the divine intersects their present pain.”
So then, instead of jumping in, we learn to hold back. We hold back and just dwell in that uneven yet sacred space for a while. Listening instead of speaking, walking alongside instead of walking ahead. Cohabiting in that sacred space instead of correcting. Sometimes, we cannot take the hurt away, we can only keep someone else from bearing it alone. Oftentimes, we cannot be the healers we wish we were for those we know and love; we can simply help carry their mat for a while, bringing them, as best we can, into a holy place, into the presence of our wounded healer, and more often than not, we do this simply by being a friend like the four friends of the paralyzed man in today’s text.
Sometimes we do this with speech, most often, in holy silence, silence that leaves room for Christ our wounded healer. As our former Bishop Joe E. Pennel Jr. was fond of saying, “We do not ever bring Christ to the places where people are suffering. We can only witness to the fact that he is already there.”
I never realized until I was writing this sermon that Saint Luke does not tell us whether or not the man on the mat had faith in Jesus, just that his friends did. In other stories of healing, Jesus has this empowering politeness about him that enables him to, presuming nothing, ask the sick what they wish for prior to healing them. Yet, in today’s text, Jesus forgives the man of his sins without hearing his confession, and he heals him without hearing his plea. It is unconditional: grace upon grace upon grace. Heal our sick, Jesus. Save our lives. Cast out our demons, Make us well.
Our healer is a wounded healer. Our God is the god of mercy and grace, and whether or not it is in this life or the life to come, the healer proclaims to us, “Go. Your faith has made you well.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.