Sermons That Work

Healing and the Knowledge of God, Proper 7 (C) – 2004

June 20, 2004

[Note: One of the joys of the RCL readings is that we get course readings in the Old Testament—such as the Elijah cycle we get this week. Pairing it with the Luke 8 story gives us some new ways of thinking and talking about God and healing.]

Elijah and the Gerasene Demoniac are two important stories that intend to shatter some of our common misunderstandings around the nature of God and the nature of healing. Elijah is on top of Mount Horeb, which is another name for Sinai. This is the very mountain that Moses would ascend to communicate with God during the wilderness sojourn. The mountaintop would be shrouded in smoke and fire.

Elijah, who is hiding for fear of his life his life from Ahab and Jezebel, is told by God to stand on the top of this mountain. A strong wind rips the mountain into pieces, but God, we are told, is not in the wind. Then there is an earthquake, but we are told God is not in the earthquake. Then fire, but God, we are told, is not in the fire. Finally, there is a still small voice. Elijah wraps his face in his mantle, knowing that God, the Almighty God of the Exodus, plagues, and creation, is in the still, small voice.

This is meant to be startling news. And, if we were willing to admit it, we are still startled that God can be found to be so small and still and quiet. This should signal to us that all our preconceived notions about God will always fall short and be incomplete.

Yet, how we think about God in relation to health and healing is also fraught with misconceptions. From long before the time of Jesus clear through to today, it has been believed that a) being holy is a guarantee of good health, and b) bad health and illness always imply spiritual shortcomings.

We also want to believe that if we were fully at one with God our lives might become lives of bliss, happiness, love, and enlightenment because God is love, happiness, etc.

Despite the historic facts that Buddha died of food poisoning, that Saint Bernadette of Lourdes died young of bone cancer, and that our own Lord Jesus suffered death upon a cross, enduring unimaginable pain and suffering, we hold onto these common misconceptions.

Yet, many spiritual traditions maintain that God is unknowable. God is undefinable. Attaching any attribute or characteristic to the Infinite excludes its opposite, immediately violating the wholeness and completeness of God, outside of which nothing can exist.

Among the spiritual geniuses who took the position that God is not just “the good things,” such as health, bliss, happiness, and pleasure, was the thirteenth-century German Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, who wrote, “Some people want to recognize God only in some pleasant enlightenment—and then they get pleasure and enlightenment but not God.”

Nevertheless, as in the Gospel story about the blind man in the ninth chapter of John, we often want to know who or what is responsible for people’s illnesses and disease: is the man himself responsible? Are his parents? Jesus answers, “Neither the man nor his parents have sinned; but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”

That is, no one fell short, no one sinned, no one chose to end up like this. Nor did God make the man blind so as to do some mighty work God does not “give us as much as we can handle.” Rather, there is some higher purpose we cannot grasp, a warning against equating spiritual and physical or mental health, and a caution against attributing shallow, superficial meaning to illness. Illness, mysteriously, can be a time when perhaps we are more open to letting God into our lives.

Despite two thousand years of this story in the canon of Western Civilization, it is not clear that we believe this or understand all of it.

Today we have before us the story of the man in the country of the Gerasenes, that is Gentiles on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, “who had demons.” Lots of demons it turns out. Today we might say he was manic-depressive, or bi-polar—and possibly schizophrenic.

The town’s people have chained this man naked in the tombs outside of town. He lives naked among the dead instead of clothed among the living. Just as Jesus has taken his ministry beyond the boundaries of his own people, this man is made to live outside the boundaries of human society because of his mental illness.

Now we might think of this treatment of the man as somewhat primitive and even cruel. But a visit or even a drive through state mental health facilities, or a visit to “cities” of cardboard boxes on the edges of our communities and under highway and railroad embankments across the country reveals that we have in fact not advanced too far if at all in our “treatment” of the mentally ill in our society.

Even those people who successfully manage their mental illness with help of a variety of drug and talk therapies are routinely stigmatized, excluded, and feared by our society at large, and in the workplace in particular if they let their “condition” be known.

Along comes Jesus. On the lake while crossing over, a storm threatened the boat. Jesus stops the wind. The disciples respond with fear, speculating over just who this Jesus might be. Who has such power, how is it expressed and for what purposes? It seems significant, that after such a harrowing journey, Jesus immediately says, “Here is person who is so dangerous he has been chained naked in the tombs. Let’s go spend some time with him and his demons.”

After a brief negotiation with the demons, Jesus curiously does not destroy them, but rather acquiesces to their request to find a new home in a herd of nearby pigs! This no doubt puts a serious dent in pork belly futures for the people of the town as the pigs go head first into the sea!

The swineherds alert the townspeople, who arrive to find the man now fully clothed and in his right mind. “They were afraid,” we are told. So afraid that they ask Jesus to leave! All because the man now looks and acts more like them.

Similarly, the man wants out. He wants to follow Jesus. He does not want to go back to town. And who could blame him? But Jesus instructs him to go back and live among the very people who prefer to have him chained and out of his mind rather than healed, whole and free. Before they felt they had him under control. Now he is free to live among them and tell his story. The story Jesus asks him to tell is about how much God had done for him in his illness.

It is not too far fetched to conclude that for this man who had lived outside the boundaries of human society during the time of his illness, the opportunity to tell his story and communicate with neighbors and family might be seen as a completion of his healing and restoration to humanity Note the last detail we are given. “So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.”

Jesus had asked him to talk about what God had done for him. That is, Jesus does not presume to have done anything. Jesus sees himself as a conduit or a doorway to God.

The man sees God in Jesus, or that Jesus is God. Echoing our story about the still small voice and the surprising places and circumstances in which God can be experienced and found.

We might do well to reflect on the details in our stories—or on those details that are missing in these stories. God is not found in synagogue, church, or worship. God is not found in the words of Holy Scripture. God is not found in prayer or meditation. God is not found in earthquake, wind, or fire. God is not found in creeds, doctrines, or formularies.

We also might want to rethink what it means to be really healed. The man is still the man. People still fear him. Life is not made much easier for him. He will still be viewed with suspicion. But he is clothed and in his right mind. His mind, whatever mind is right for him—not the mind we or others think he ought to have. All of this is true because he can see the divine, the absolute, the infinite that lives in and through Jesus. All of this is true because Jesus can see the divine, the absolute, and infinite that lives in him.

Once we begin to seriously rethink how we treat and relate to those who live with mental illness in our society, we might begin to hear the voice of God and experience the kind of healing and blessing we all want to know. Amen.

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Christopher Sikkema


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