In her book Angels in Pinafores, author Alice Lee Humphries share some of her experiences as a first grade teacher. There’s a story she tells about one little 6-year-old girl who came to school on a damp and chilly day wearing a beautiful white angora beret, white mittens, and a matching muff. As she was coming through the door, a mischievous little boy grabbed the white muff and threw it in the mud.
After chastising the little boy, Humphries went to comfort the girl. As she wiped the mud off her muff, the little girl looked up at her teacher and in a quiet and concerned voice, she said, “Sometime I must take a day off and tell him about God.”
As far as the little girl was concerned, everything that was wrong with the boy could be made right if he could just hear about God.
The people Jesus heals in the passage Jocelyn read this morning, feel the same way. The distraught father of a dying girl begs: “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live!” “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well,” says the woman who has been hemorrhaging for 12 years, enduring more pain and suffering than the local doctors could cure. These two people are desperate, and they know that their only hope is Jesus. If they can just get close to Jesus, everything that is wrong will be made better.
But there are more than just these two people coming to him for healing; a number of times we read that crowds of people are all around him, coming to him from every side as he tries to walk down the street with his disciples. Some of them are rich, like Jairus the leader of the synagogue; and some are poor and vulnerable, like the woman whose flow of blood would make her ritually unclean, and therefore isolated from society. Rich and poor alike, with various concerns that we’re not told about; it seems like no one is exempt from the problems for which Jesus is their only hope. The crowds press in, desperate to get close to him.
If it were anyone other than Jesus, I can imagine that they would be totally overwhelmed by all the need, all of the suffering and desperation that he was faced with. Because we all do, don’t we? We feel overwhelmed by the amount of hurt and pain and the increasing anxiety we see growing all around us in our world; we just don’t know what to do or think about the problems we see as we walk along our city streets, or while watching the evening news.
In our city, we read in the papers that gun violence is on the rise, and we wonder: will the government or the police ever be able to get it under control, or will the terror that gangs inflict just keep growing? What could our city be doing – is there anything WE could be doing – to keep our city’s young people out of that dead-end life of drugs and guns and gangs?
On a national level, our country that we love and celebrate today, is engaged this very day in a trade war that is concerning, not just because of the possible economic implications, but because many have expressed that they feel personally insulted and hurt by the government of a nation that has been our closest friend and ally for decades.
We worry that too much screen time may be damaging the brains of our nation’s children.
We wonder if there is any solution for the homelessness, addiction and mental health issues we see on our city streets.
We worry that advances made in human rights for women, racial minorities, workers and other formerly oppressed groups may gradually be rolled right back into oppression.
And on top of the many societal ills that feel so overwhelming, we still feel that personal worry about physical illness and death, like what we read about in the scripture passage from Mark. Because that’s what the passage is about, right? Miraculous physical healing. Except that Jesus ties it all into faith: maybe spiritual healing is just as needed - and just as miraculous - as physical healing.
We all know of – or at least have heard of - people who have been physically healed through prayer. I do believe that God still sometimes physically heals people as their friends and family pray for them, just as Jesus and the disciples did in the Bible. And in our country, we are blessed by God with incredibly advanced and highly effective medical care. It is truly miraculous that some of the diseases that were most deadly 100 years ago are now completely treatable and curable. As we celebrate this Canada Day weekend, our health care system is one of the things for which I consistently hear people expressing gratitude.
But still, we know that sometimes people are not healed of physical ailments, despite the ardent prayers of everyone who loves them; and from a faith perspective it’s very hard to understand why some people seem to be cured of illnesses against all odds, and why some aren’t.
My brother was one of those people – after he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, we all prayed for him to be healed, and he truly believed right up to his very last day of his life that if he clung to his faith, God would heal him. He was not physically healed, but when I looked back on his final months, I know that he experienced a great deal of emotional and spiritual healing through his faith as he journeyed with cancer. He learned to forgive the people who had hurt him throughout his life; he learned to entrust his life – come what may – to God; he expressed great gratitude for the wonderful life he had lived – because in his moment of desperation, he came to God as his only hope. “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”
Each of our lives is marked by hurts, disappointments, things that people we love have done to us, things we feel guilt or shame about, or lies about who we are that over the years we have come to believe are true; and the problems of our society are the result of our society being made up – 100% - of individuals who are carrying around burdens of loneliness, rejection, resentment, shame, fear, or anger. These open wounds in our hearts and souls cause us all to then hurt each other.
But we don’t have to let these things dominate our lives…God wants to take all our wounds and heal them. He loves to take those painful experiences we’d like to forget and use them to make a difference in the lives of others. Jesus can heal our lives, and as we come to him and lay all our pain at Jesus’ feet, we are restored to life by his power; we then carry that power with us, into the world.
Allow me to tell you the story of how one church was healed by the power of Christ… My colleague and mentor Pastor Ray spent many hours in prayer during the first few months at a new church, asking God for wisdom to know how to lead his church. The Holy Spirit responded, impressing on him that the first step should be to establish a prayer meeting, as the church didn’t have one going at that time. Knowing that it would be difficult to get people out to an evening prayer meeting, Pastor Ray decided to replace the adult Sunday School class which was held before worship on Sunday mornings with a prayer meeting, to which he gave the uninspiring name, “Operation Prayer.” His hope was that those who were dropping off their children for Sunday School would then stay for the prayer meeting.
Only 10 or 12 people stayed behind to join the prayer meeting, with the others dropping their children off and then going for coffee before returning for the worship service. Since even the people who did come were unaccustomed to praying, Pastor Ray taught for approximately 40 minutes, and then they would break into two small groups and pray for the remaining 5 minutes. After six months, it became clear to him that prayer was not catching on: people were not inspired by the prayer meeting, and their numbers dwindled.
Pastor Ray didn’t see a correlation at the time, but while he was doing this another problem was developing. His wife, Fran, had been complaining about a runny nose that seemed to be worsening. Her doctor thought that perhaps she had developed a strong allergy. But not even the strongest antihistamine, improved her condition. Finally, the doctor had a lab analyze the fluid and they discovered that it was cerebral spinal fluid! A breach to her brain had developed, allowing the fluid to escape through the sinuses and out her nose. This condition was life-threatening, so the doctor urged surgery as soon as possible, to find and repair the breach.
The surgeon made a long incision from one ear to the next. He could see the fluid with a small camera, he couldn’t find its point of origin. After five hours, he abandoned the search and stapled the skin back together again. By the next morning, the fluid was leaking from her nose again – the surgery had failed.
A new surgeon was found and a second surgery planned. This surgery also failed. The third surgery, in Philadelphia, achieved some progress in that the surgeon discovered the breach; right next to the brain stem. The breach was plugged, but three months later it failed. The fourth surgery failed as well; as did the fifth, the sixth, seventh and eighth. By the ninth surgery, it had become apparent that the breach couldn’t be repaired. Instead, she was fitted with a shunt which would drain off excess fluid to her abdomen.
During those years, Pastor Ray spent countless hours and days next to Fran’s bed in ICU. He would go to his church late in the evening, and implore God for his wife’s healing. He even added fasting to his prayers. Yet, despite continual reassurances of love and hope from the Holy Spirit, the answer to his prayers didn’t seem to come.
Though Pastor Ray didn’t see the correlation at first, he now believes with all his heart that God was using Fran’s condition to root prayer into their church. The people who had not been interested in an abstract “Operation Prayer” began gathering together to pray for Fran’s healing. Though God didn’t answer the prayer for complete healing that they were asking for, He would frequently answer their prayers for issues related to Fran’s condition.
For example, while in ICU one day, she developed severe pain in her head – well beyond her pain threshold. The medical team was mystified, and was not able to bring her pain under control. Suddenly, it occurred to Pastor Ray that he should ask his newly formed team of Prayer Partners to pray for her. He rushed to the telephone in the hallway and on the first ring, he had a Prayer Partner on the line. He quickly told them that immediate prayer was needed, and that an explanation would follow later. Then he hung up the phone and rushed back to Fran’s bed, only to see her laying calmly, the pain gone, surrounded by a puzzled medical staff. In just a few minutes, the pain had “mysteriously” disappeared!
Prayer slowly began taking root in the church. Attendance at the Sunday morning Operation Prayer steadily increased. By the fall of 2000, four years after he first launched Operation Prayer, Pastor Ray held the first two-hour, all-church prayer meeting on a Sunday evening. About 150 people attended! It quickly turned into a monthly gathering, which they named the Prayer Summit. Today, attendance at their Prayer Summits averages approximately 1300 people, including men and women, seniors and teenagers. I have been to some, and I can tell you that it is an incredibly powerful experience, especially when a group of 15-year-old boys gather around you and pray for you!
Fran wasn’t ever fully “healed,” but her life was spared, and to this day she deals with headaches and has to keep close monitor of her health. But through this experience and over the span of a few years an entire community of faith was spiritually healed, and this community has gone on to bring spiritual healing and new life to thousands of people across the country, including me.
What the Bible passage points to is that people are healed as they draw close to Jesus, and some of it may be physical healing, but always we receive inner healing as we draw close to Jesus. My brother did not receive physical healing, but did receive inner healing which gave him a measure of deep peace as he learned to accept his mortal condition. Fran, who did receive a measure of physical healing, saw an entire church community healed spiritually through the trial that she endured.
The healing of communities, of society, doesn’t happen like magic; it happens as individuals, one by one, draw closer and closer to Jesus, close enough for His power to enter into us and heal our lives, so that we can carry that power with us, the power that can heal the world.
Jesus draws near to the people who seek him, and he touches them and they are healed. But he emphasizes that it is through our faith that his power moves. Author N.T. Wright asks the question: was it Jesus’ power that rescued the woman, or was it her own faith? “Clearly,” Wright continues, it was Jesus’ power; but then he says, ‘Your faith has made you well.’ The answer must be that faith, though itself powerless, is the channel through which Jesus’ power can work.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
N.T. Wright, “Mark for Everyone.” Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004; p. 61.