Sermon at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Fort Worth
I’ve just come back from in Egypt and a meeting of the primates of the Anglican Communion. Those are the archbishops and presiding bishops of the 38 national (and international) churches that make up the Anglican Communion.
One of the most intriguing conversations I had at the primates meeting happened in a Bible study. An archbishop who has also served as a physician made the observation that he’d never met a blind person who didn’t want to see. I countered by saying that blind people often develop ways of seeing that the sighted can never hope to match. He was insistent, however, that even those born blind always want to see. I know that’s not universally true in the deaf culture. There is a strong sentiment in the deaf community, albeit not universal, that insists that deafness is a gift, and not something to be cured.
It occurred to me that what God does in becoming human in Jesus is like choosing deafness or blindness – a limitation that allows other gifts to emerge. Jesus quite literally had insight into the human condition that could be shared in no other way.
What insight has your condition here at St. Stephen’s brought you? What have you seen and learned and felt and experienced through this trauma? What have all the pain, anger, and betrayal given you? There is gift and blessing in the midst of all that woundedness, and it’s a part of your life in Jesus, and your resurrection.
That’s what’s going on with Simon’s mother-in-law. Jesus has just come from healing a sick person in the synagogue to Simon and Andrew’s house, and he discovers that Simon’s mother in law is laid up with a fever. He takes her by the hand, raises her up, and the fever leaves – just as the spirit left the man in the synagogue. It seems that the people around the man in the synagogue looked for healing for their friend, even though the spirit in him wasn’t too excited about the possibility. And Simon and Andrew and the others in their house quickly told Jesus about the feverish woman. Sometimes we need our friends and family to look out for us.
Jesus raises her up, and it’s the same word used for his own resurrection. She is quite literally raised up into new life. Her response is to serve, and she becomes the first deacon – that’s the word used there. Her experience of illness, lack of health, and the new life she receives leads her to respond in service. That’s the only way any of us comes to diaconal ministry.
I heard another very interesting story at that meeting in Egypt – of an immigrant in Canada who found sanctuary in a church. Sonia wasn’t a legal immigrant, but the local Anglican church took her in while she struggled to get her request for asylum granted. They made a room for her in the basement, and looked after her for months. People flocked to her, they crowded around, just to be in her presence. When Archbishop Fred Hiltz told me the story, he said she became the local holy woman in that place. It made me think of Dame Julian, who lived in a little room connected to the church in Norwich, England, in the Middle Ages. She took on that ascetical way of living (it’s called being an anchorite), mostly closed off from the world and what we would call “normal life” in order to focus on her interior life. But the world wouldn’t leave her alone. They kept coming to learn from her spiritual insight.
Now, is that experience of Sonia’s or of Julian’s an illness that should be cured? In the world’s eyes, it’s likely to be seen as a disability not to be able to go where and when you please, but it also has blessings. Both of them seem to have been holy women – and holy is another variation on the same root that gives us “whole” and “healthy.”
There are many kinds of healing, and they don’t all come with surgery or drugs. We’re finally beginning to do some good theology around the different sorts and conditions in which human beings find themselves, particularly around what we call physical and mental handicaps. Some have pointed out that all of us are disabled at some point in our lives – we start out that way – and that at the most we can say that we are temporarily able-bodied. Yet we have a tendency to say that this state is normal, and that another condition is a disability that needs to be fixed. It tends to be a pretty one-sided kind of definition, rather than listening to the person concerned about what he or she thinks.
There are people who appear to be profoundly disabled in the world’s terms who nevertheless live lives that look healed. What about Stephen Hawking? He’s 67 and has lived with ALS for more than 40 years. His mind has blessed the world with his contributions to physics and mathematics. I’m not implying that he wouldn’t choose to live in another way if he could, but that while some call him handicapped, he could just as well call most of us more ordinary mortals intellectually handicapped. Definitions are not as simple as they might seem.
Jesus’ healing is always a restoration to community. The man who’s been healed in the synagogue can’t take part in the usual religious life – because he has an “unclean” spirit. Simon’s mother in law is isolated because of her fever. When you look at the healing stories in the gospels, you quickly see that Jesus may heal the physical illness or the psychological demon, but it is almost always followed up with a demonstration that this person becomes a whole person in relation to the larger community. He tells the onlookers to feed the person, or he sends the lepers to visit the priest so they can get their ticket to come back into community life. That is the goal of healing, a fuller and more abundant life. And Simon’s mother in law understands that as she responds with an act of community building.
The divisions here in Ft Worth have happened because some think you’re sick. You have energetically resisted that definition, and you’re being raised up to more abundant life as you claim the blessing of your condition. If your healing is to continue, you will need to give evidence of it by working to build a more obviously healed community around you. I certainly mean the kind of diaconal ministry that’s involved in feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless, but I would also suggest that your painful separation from what you thought was your church home, and the separation from people you once counted friends, will be healed as you give evidence of your own healing. Your resurrection has something to do with how you find the blessings in that pain and separation and sense of betrayal. Don’t respond with vengeance. Remember the pain in your heart and don’t add to the pain in someone else’s. Count that wound as a blessing, and offer generosity.
I’m not suggesting that you roll over and play dead (you’ve been there!), or that you respond to the definition others have placed on you of being unchristian, or morally depraved, or spiritually handicapped, with defensiveness. That is only the definition of others, and it won’t be fixed by telling them that they’re the ones who are sick. God calls you beloved, and God calls them beloved, too. God has blessed you with a greater vision for what a healed community might look like. Give evidence of your healing, in the sense that Paul is talking about – proclaim the gospel because you have no choice. Your healing is caught up in that obligation. It is a prescription for the well-being of the world. Speak good news to all who will listen, and you will continue to be raised into new life. Good news, no vengeance, and heal your neighbors. Take those two tablets (the ones Moses got, filled with commandments) and call me if the pain returns. Doctor’s orders!