Sunday, February 9, 2014

Healing and Hope: A Sermon on John 4 and 5

Scripture can be found here.....

“Sickness is a place,” wrote Flannery O’Connor, “and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow.”[i]

In today’s readings from John’s gospel, we are given two stories of healing, and they are so different, it was impossible to choose just one.  In one story we have a sick child, a little boy, who is “at the point of death”—an illness that has suddenly and dramatically interrupted a young life. In the ot
her, we have a man for whom illness is a way of life: he has spent 38 years lying near a pool that contains healing properties, without managing to get in. In the first story, we have a man of power and influence, interceding on behalf of his son. In the second we have a man who, on his own, is powerless to do much of anything for himself. The royal official is most likely a gentile, a non-believer. The man by the pool in Jerusalem is the same religion as Jesus, a Jew.

But what binds the stories together is illness: that other country of which O’Connor speaks. What binds these stories together are the miraculous healings that come about because each of these people had an encounter with Jesus.

Taking the stories one at a time, then: In the first we have a father whose son is sick. The father is a royal official, a man who, we can presume, has some power at his disposal, and also some wealth. A man who orders people around. A man who, more often than not, gets his way.

But when his little boy is sick—and this is the thing about illness—his power vanishes. His wealth is insignificant. He cannot command the disease, the fever, the cancer—whatever it is that has brought his child to the edge of the abyss between life and death. And so he leaves Capernaum for Cana in Galilee, which is roughly the same distance as Binghamton to Owego: less than half an hour in a car, but a walk of about ten hours. The royal official has heard of Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t much like the Jesus he meets. Jesus’ first response is to rebuff the man entirely. “You just want a show. You just want a magic act so that you can ‘ooooh’ and ‘ahhhh.’” I try to envision myself in the man’s position, and all I can imagine is anger.

You’ve heard of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, right? She of the “Five Stages of Grief”? Except, as it turns out, they are not really successive stages, and, as it also turns out, they can apply to our experiences of other kinds of trauma as well. Such as, the terror of thinking your child is about to die. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. They often occur in a jumble, or all together, or two or three at a time. No rhyme or reason, because each human heart and psyche is unique. Here, anger is a reasonable response.
But this man doesn’t have the luxury of being able to be angry. He does not lash out. Instead, ignoring Jesus’ dismissive words, he begs. “Sir, come down before my little boy dies.” And so Jesus gives him the good news: Your son will live. And so the royal official begins his long walk home. Another ten hours, six if he’s on horseback or in a carriage. A long not knowing, a long lingering in the other country that is illness, even the illness of one you adore.

Our second story presents us with an odd protagonist: the man by the pool. We are not exactly told that his illness is his fault. Not exactly. But in this week in which we lost Philip Seymour Hoffman to heroin addiction, we are already alert to some situations in which we, like Jesus, are tempted to lean in close to the afflicted person and ask, “Do you want to be made well?” You know the diseases—the cancers for which there is no ribbon, because we assume the person brought it on by their own bad behavior. Addictions. There’s a lot of sorrow out there about the great actor we lost. There’s also a lot of judgment. Didn’t he want to get well?

Jesus asks the unnamed man by the pool. Don’t you want to get well? Well, he answers, I have no one to help me to get to the pool when the healing is ready. And Jesus—this abrupt Jesus we have today—says, Get up and go. And what follows is a stunning series of conversations in which the healed man not only does not express any gratitude for his brand new life, but actually turns Jesus in to the religious authorities for healing on the Sabbath. (This, in order to get out of trouble for carrying his mat around on the Sabbath.) Jesus sees him one last time, and leaves him with some ominous words that sound much like a threat.

So the good news is, people are healed, both the child who is completely offstage and the man who goes and tattles on Jesus. And maybe the really good news, if we want the whole world to be healed, is that these stories tell us unequivocally that there is no relationship between good behavior and miraculous healings. The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, and healing, apparently, is like the rain.

Healing takes place! This is good news! So why does this all still feel so… hard?

Maybe it’s because healing isn’t always easy, not even miraculous healing.

Think of the father traveling across Galilee for hours and hours, not knowing. This is what one scholar calls a perfect image of the life of faith. We put one foot in front of the other hoping, but not knowing. And think of the man who takes up his mat and walks, only to entirely disavow Jesus because he is afraid of the religious authorities. His infirmity is gone, but his fear remains. He doesn’t yet know how to cross back from that other country into the land of the living.

Illness, addiction, disease, trauma and injury—these things can isolate us. They can take us from a world we know and are familiar with into a land that is unknown, and seemingly untraveled. There are no markers on the roads, just our own feet trudging forward because it’s the only way we know to go.

Maybe healing, true healing, begins the minute we start to believe we are not alone. The minute we recognize that others have gone through, that they are going through, what we are going through. This is the genius of the Twelve Steps… they get people out of their heads, where all the excuses live, and help them understand that the path to recovery is a well-worn road … in fact, if they look around, it is a crowded highway, filled with boon companions.  

Perhaps true healing begins the minute that we know, not only that we are not alone, but that we are held in the palm God’s hand. That, no matter the outcome of our illness—whether or not we receive a cure we are longing for—that we will receive God’s healing, which is to say, the firm and beautiful and transforming knowledge of ourselves as abiding, forever, in the very heart of God’s love. Maybe this is what’s on Jesus’ mind this morning. His heart is ever and only wanting us to know that our truest healing comes when we are resting in God’s love.

Maybe sickness is a place where nobody can follow. But it is also a place where we can find companions if we remember to look for them. And every place—the long road across Galilee or the highway across the Southern Tier, the place where we are stuck by the side of the road or are waiting by the side of the pool—in any place and every place, we can and will be found by God. And whether we are sleepless in our own beds, or sleepless beside the hospital bed that holds our beloved—we can know that we are held by God, day and night, waking and sleeping, living and dying. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] From a 1956 letter, collected in The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald.

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