(a sermon by Mark Parent)
(delivered at the Pereaux Baptist Church)
(12 February 2012, Mark 1:40-45)
I don’t know if you have noticed but there has been a tremendous increase of interest in alternative medicine in the past few years. There are at least three reasons for this.
To begin with the de-institutionalization of religious faith has meant that people are searching for ways in which to express and to satisfy the spiritual urge which is an essential part of the human creature.
I wrote on a chapter on alternative medicine in my book Spiritscapes which was a response to the refrain I kept hearing from people that they were “spiritual but not religious.” I remember puzzling over this. What did they mean by such a comment? And then it came to me that what they meant is they were religious but in a de-institutionalized form. They did not go to church and felt that “organized’ or “institutional” religion, as they called it, was a hindrance rather than an aid to true spiritual growth. And so I asked myself this question “where are people satisfying their spiritual faith?”
I discovered that alternative medicine was one of the places since the teaching behind many alternative medical practices is that we are spiritual beings with an energy force or energy field that has got out of alignment. This imbalance leads to illness and needs to be corrected resulting in health, according to alternative medical participants.
Another factor which has fueled the growth of alternative medicine has been, particularly in the United States, the high cost of traditional medical treatment with expensive physicians, pricey hospitals, costly technology and high priced drugs. In comparison, going to your naturopathic specialist or your reflexology practitioner is, for those without medical coverage, a real bargain.
Thirdly, traditional medicine has focused more and more on acute care, on illness rather than on wellness. There are some attempts to correct this with plans to reward medical practitioners based on how their patients have done re: weight loss, or the adoption of exercise programs. And the whole emphasis on “population health” is based on this desire to shift the focus from illness to wellness but, by and large, these efforts have been minimal and the vast majority of money and effort in our health care system goes to acute care. Indeed, one rather radical critic of the modern medical establishment in the West, the defrocked Roman Catholic priest Ivan Illich even went so far as to claim that our medical system is one whose intent is to produce illness in order to make us dependant upon it.
In several trenchant books, Illich argues that our educational system rather than sparking and feeding our natural curiosity and desire to learn actually straightjackets our thinking and makes us ignorant. And our health care system rather than making us well makes us ill, as we continually get fancier and fancier tests which determine that we have this disease or that disease, this psychological condition or that one.
I have to admit that I have always found it interesting that when doctors withhold their services, when they strike, deaths go dramatically down.
In contrast, alternative medical procedures and practitioners put greater emphasis on wellness which is the third factor accounting for its popularity
One would think, then, in light of the exploding interest and use of alternative medical practices that I would find it easy to preach on the healing stories in both the New and Old Testament since alternative medicine has revealed that the body is much more mysterious than traditional medicine teaches us, more of a dynamic energy field rather than a mechanical machine. And yet, I confess, I still struggle with how to interpret and understand the healing stories in the bible such as the two which were read this morning — the first being the healing of Naaman, the Aramean by the prophet Elisha and the second the healing of an unnamed leper by Jesus.
Part of the reason for my struggle is due to my past experience and specifically to two incidents which took place long ago.
The first was an evangelistic service in Red Deer Alberta which I attended while I was in Bible College at the age of 18. The evangelists claimed that 90% percent of people’s health problems were caused by one leg being shorter than the other and so people were invited to the front to have their shorter leg stretched until it was as long as their other leg. I was there because I wanted to recommit my life to Christ but they weren’t interested in that, probably because that isn’t what filled the offering plates to overflowing and so I went off to side with some friends who prayed with me and for me as I made my recommitment.
The second incident took place in my first church where a retired minister who was quite critical of me became ill with cancer. He asked for prayer for healing and so the deacons and I went to his home where we prayed for him, and, at his request, laid hands on him and anointed him with oil. When that particular person did not get well he blamed the deacons and me for his illness. In particular, he was unhappy with me since I had prayed “if it be your will God to heal” rather than commanding healing. He felt the deacons and I had not shown enough faith. To give him his due, he felt that he himself had not shown enough faith either, that with more faith the cancer which in end killed him could be beaten and his life saved.
And so, I have usually ignored the healing stories but when you follow the lectionary as we do at this church, you cannot do that forever. As you know the lectionary goes through the entire Bible in a three year cycle and sooner or later, a pastor is going to have to speak on the healing stories in the Bible.
To be fair, I am not alone with my struggles with the healing stories and what to make of them today.
More liberal preachers tend to reinterpret the stories. The man possessed by unclean spirits was merely depressed, such preachers claim, and Jesus was able to talk him back to health, Mary and Martha’s brother didn’t really die, he simply feel into a coma from which Jesus was able to waken him.
More conservative preachers, on the other hand, insist that the healings happened exactly as written but claim that the time of healings was confined to Jesus time and cannot be fully replicated in our own day. They were meant to confirm and validate Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah and were only for the short period of Jesus’ life.
And yet when one looks at the healing story in Mark’s gospel, for instance, both liberal and conservative scholars seem to have it wrong. Leprosy was a well known and much feared disease and there is no real way to reinterpret a healing from leprosy in any other way that a healing from leprosy, which, of course, gives lie to the liberal scholars. But conservative scholars, at least in regard to Jesus’ healings, miss an important point and that is that on many different occasions when Jesus healed someone he expressly told that person not to tell anyone else about the healing. The question must be asked how could they function as “proofs” that Jesus was the Messiah? If they did function in such a way they did so against Jesus’ own wishes.
For confirmation consider the story in the gospel of Mark which I read earlier. A leper comes to Jesus and “moved by pity” Jesus heals him but tells him in no uncertain terms not to tell of his healing to anyone else. The leper disobeys and so many people flock to see this miracle healer that Jesus “could no longer go into the town openly, but stayed out in the country,” his ministry hampered by the leper’s disobedience, according to Mark.
What are we to make of this? To me it is very clear. The healing of the leper was incidental and a distraction from what Jesus really came to do and that is not to heal us physically or even mentally but to heal us from sin. “Moved by pity” Jesus felt he could not turn the leper away but he didn’t want it to distract him or others from his main message, which is salvation from sin and reunion with God.
When you think about it Jesus took a similar attitude towards those who tried to turn him into a political leader. He refused the role because of the greater calling to which God had called him.
You see if Jesus had given in and become a political leader he would have bettered the lives of a few thousand people in long ago days and in a far away place. If he had became a faith healer he would have bettered the lives a few hundred. As it was, he has become the gate through which we today can come and go and find eternal life. He has become the bridge between God and the human creature and through his outstretched arms on the cross has brought back together that which was torn apart. Because when you think about it, even though the leper was healed, it was for a short item only. Soon, like all of us daughters of Eve and sons of Adam, the leper would die. We live in a world of limits. We are all affected by what the theologians call original sin and what philosophers call alienation. We are affected by death, there is no escape. The prime illness which strikes at the core of our being is not cancer or diabetes or clinical depression it is sin; it is alienation from the ground of our being, alienation from God.
This is what Jesus came to heal and we must always remember this.
So what are we to make of these healing stories? I think they are pointers, brief insights of what a world would be like without the effects of human sin. They are glimpses into that future when, as the author John puts it in the last book of the Bible, the new Jerusalem will come down out of heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband and God will wipe away all tears from our eyes and their will be neither death, nor mourning, nor pain any longer for the former things have passed away.
In the meantime, then do we just put up with illness stoically as Ivan Illich advocates? And the answer of course is no. “Moved by pity” Jesus responded to the need before him and we, as his followers must be moved by pity as well when need comes before us.
And this is where these passages strike home because they are both stories of healing from leprosy, a disease which is still with us today in almost many countries of the world and yet a disease which is so easily treatable and even more easily preventable. All it takes is a few dollars. Indeed, the estimates are a dollar a day for one year will cure a person suffering from leprosy.
A dollar a day, just think about that in a world where we spend money for frivolous things we don’t need, where stuff piles up on our homes and lives until we have to hire a junk declutterer to get free of it all, where we buy things we may use once a year, if that, where a 30 inch television must give way to a forty and fifty and sixty, for what reason no one really knows except the electronics world pushes it and goodness knows we can’t let our neighbour have a nicer TV or car or house than we have. A dollar a day.
I don’t know exactly what to make of the miraculous healings in the bible but I do know this, for one dollar a day leprosy can be cured and the same thing can be said for many of the other diseases from which people suffer from..
Moved by pity Jesus healed, are you, as his follower, moved by pity as well?