- STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH MAY 2, 2021
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Call to Worship: Psalm 146: 1 – 5
Hallelujah! It’s good and fitting to sing praise to our God.
Our God is gracious and worthy of worship
He heals the heartbroken, bandaging their wounds.
He counts the stars, assigning each one a name.
Our Lord is great, with limitless strength.
His wisdom is beyond measure.
Lighting of the Christ Candle
Prayer of Adoration and Confession
Gracious God, Divine Physician,
You see our wounded souls and have reached across the great rift which divides us from you, sending your Son to be our healer.
A word from his mouth, brought wholeness to the broken,
A touch of his hand brought healing to the sick.
His death on the cross destroyed sin’s viral power.
His wounds became our healing.
His resurrection brought new life and wholeness.
His life became our strength.
We praise you for your vast love, your deep compassion, and your invincible power.
We confess that we are sick on so many levels,
Our hearts are broken from the losses and wounds we have suffered.
Our minds are unwell, putting the world together in ways that are neither true nor helpful.
Our bodies are ill, prone to disease, weakness, and breakdown,
Our souls are tainted by all that is unholy.
Our anger is greater than our faith and our despondency is stronger than our hope.
Forgive us our sin. Heal our diseases. Bind our wounds. Redeem us from the power of death.
Crown us with your steadfast love and mercy. Wrap us in a mantle of goodness. Restore us to the strength of our youth and give us life, abundant and eternal.
As we gather today, we recall the faces of those with whom we would normally worship. Help us to remember the great gift we are to one another.
In our worship, let us come to you with open hearts and a spirit of praise, so that we may lift you up and bless your holy name. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon Jeremiah 17: 14
Heal me, O Lord,
and I shall be healed.
and I shall be saved.
For you are my praise.
Prayer for Illumination
Holy God, as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness for the healing of the nation, you lifted up Jesus for the healing of the world. Help us to look on him now, so that we may be whole. Amen.
2 Corinthians 4: 16 – 18
Matthew 8: 1 – 17
Message: Friends with Benefits: Jesus Heals
Before I took my break, we were doing a sermon series called: Friends with Benefits. The title was meant to remind us that Jesus’ death and resurrection bridged the gap between ourselves and God. Not only does our friend, Jesus, save us, he also frees us to live unshackled from all of our disordered attachments. But Jesus does more, Jesus also heals.
Two weeks ago, the son of a friend and colleague was diagnosed with the corona virus. The son is a university student who works in a senior’s residence. The rest of the family had to be tested as well. I was very touched by his simple request for prayer. He wrote, “My family and I would appreciate any prayers on our behalf to beat Covid-19 with God’s power and His people’s love.” I was struck first by his faith. As clergy we see witness many times when a person prays for healing, yet God chooses not to heal him or her. One’s faith can be somewhat dampened by this, but here was my colleague, confident in God’s power and ability to beat CoVid. I was also touched that he included the love of God’s people as part of the way in which the Spirit works to bring healing, not only through our prayers, but through our love.
In our gospel reading today, we hear about Jesus’ extraordinary healing ministry. I use the word: extraordinary deliberately – ordinary comes from the old English term for what is “orderly”, routine, or normal. Extraordinary means it is outside the normal course of events or better still, it is outside of what is orderly. When Jesus entered a town to heal people, he was introducing the people not simply to a power outside their routine events or expectations, he was doing something “unruly”, something unpredictable and uncontrollable; something outside the box, that couldn’t be pushed back inside. We’ve heard the stories hundreds of times and are perhaps too familiar with Jesus’ healing ministry. The magnitude of his healing power should leave us in awe, as it would have done to the people who witnessed it at the time. During his time on Earth, Jesus was a healer. He cured people of their diseases and restored their bodies, relieving them from pain, suffering, physical limitations and extending their lives. He brought them healing of mind and spirit. There are many stories of Jesus healing those who were possessed by demons. Quite likely many of the illnesses people of Jesus’ day thought of as “possession” were what we now understand to be mental illness. The Greek word psyche, from which we get psychiatry, means “soul, mind or spirit”. While mental illness is often physically based, it can be heightened by our thoughts, and it is a wound to our spirit. When our psyche is healed, we find freedom from spiritual torment. Of course, we may also understand “demons” to be actual evil spirits; demonic possession is rare but real. Many years ago, I, along with about 15 other people, witnessed a “deliverance”. If someone had told me about it, I’d have thought they were crazy, but having seen it, I can tell you it was real and it was extraordinary – first weird and frightening, then peaceful and beautiful. Jesus not only heals us physically and mentally, by his death and resurrection, Jesus also healed the wound dividing humanity and God, making it possible, through faith, for our relationship with the Triune God to be restored. Beyond giving us eternal life, we find peace and joy, our lives derive new meaning and God becomes present to us. Jesus heals our relationship with God and through that he heals our spirits.
The three accounts of Jesus’ healing people which we read today, show us the power of Jesus and highlight important truths. In the first narrative, a man with leprosy approaches Jesus. Since leprosy was a debilitating and contagious illness, and since, in the Jewish Law “lepers” were considered ritually unclean, people with symptoms lived outside the villages in colonies with others like them. If they approached another group of people, they were required to clang a bell and yell “unclean, unclean”. Not only did these people suffer physically, they lived in isolation from their families and were shamed. The man approached Jesus and dropped to his knees. He respected Jesus and came to him not as an equal, or a superior as many consider themselves today, but as a subordinate and a supplicant. He was not above humbling himself. He knew his need. People often have difficulty admitting they have a need and asking for it to be met. How often in marriages, families, church and even work situations or living communities (such as college dorms or seniors residences) do we expect others to have a crystal ball and feel hurt when our needs aren’t met? The poet Rumi writes, “You must ask for what you really want”. This man was neither afraid nor ashamed to ask for what he really wanted. He also had faith. He believed that if Jesus wanted, he had the power to heal his body. While faith isn’t a penny that we pop in a bubble gum machine called Jesus, it does play a role in our relationship to him. One of the most beautiful lines in scripture is Jesus’ simple response, “I want to” (Matthew 8:3). This tells us a great deal about God. As Paul says in Romans 8:31, “God is for us”; God is on our side”. God wants the best for us, and God is willing to give it to us, so much so “He put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son” (Romans 8: 32) .
Sometimes though, we do humble ourselves and in faith ask Christ to heal us, but our bodies continue to grow ill and old. Jesus seems unwilling to heal us. At other times, God is willing to heal us, but we are not willing to help him or ourselves. Often in life, but not always – miracles still happen, but often God uses people and human ingenuity to heal us. God works through the miracles of medication and treatment. A woman I know, Ruth and her sister both had breast cancer at the same time. Ruth was given five years. She went through all the prescribed treatments. That was forty years ago. Her sister ignored the cancer until it had grown through her skin. She refused treatment. On her deathbed, her sister told Ruth, “It’s not fair that you’re alive and I’m dying; even God loves you best”. Point made. God is willing to heal us, and we need to be open to receiving healing. Yet there are other times when we ask in faith and do all we can but continue to we live with limitations and pain and God does not heal our bodies. At these times, the temptation is to assume that God is incapable or more likely, unwilling to heal us. God is not for us. We conclude that God is against us or is punishing us, so we torment ourselves trying to figure out why God is punishing us so we can fix it and earn his grace. If we begin with the assumption – or better still with the fact, that God is for us, our thinking takes another path. We might still ask “why me?” or “is there a purpose for this” because we’re human and those are common questions, but we may get around to asking a better question: “if it is me who is to endure this illness or condition, how do I use it to glorify God?” I have known people with cancer, people in chronic pain, people with amputated limbs, people who are blind or deaf, whose faith and love for God flow out of them. Not that they’re not without human flaws (they’d be the first to say they have them) but they trust in God, in spite of and because of their challenge. God may not have healed them physically, but his Spirit has healed their spirits.
Part of the human reality is that we do not live forever. In the words of Shakespeare, we all “shuffle off this mortal coil”. It is human nature to cling to this life and those we love. We often pray for a miracle in the face of death. Like Lazarus God sometimes grants an individual a little more time, but eventually, we die. But even death doesn’t mean God is against us. Paul, who suffered not only with his physical ailments but with scars, pain and wounds from brutal persecution, wrote, “So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us [NRSV “ wasting away”], on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever” (2 Corinthians 4: 16 – 18). God is willing to welcome you into his kingdom, which is wonderful beyond our wildest imaginings, and to bestow on us “an eternal weight of glory” as a child and an heir. God is for us and God is willing to bless us with his unfolding grace.
Not only is Jesus willing, but Jesus is able. He has the power and authority to make us whole. In the second narrative, a gentile military captain approaches Jesus telling him his servant has been struck ill and is paralyzed. Jesus grabs his coat and is ready to go. But the centurion stops Jesus because as a captain he knows how authority works. He tells his soldiers or his slaves to come and they come, to act and they do what he says. He is certain that Jesus spiritual authority is at least that strong. All Jesus needs to do is say the word. Jesus does and the servant is healed. The man had confidence that Jesus had the power and the authority to make what he believed could happen, happen.
Jesus does one more healing. Peter, his disciple, has a mother-in-law who is burning up with a fever. There are no vaccines, antibiotics or breathing tubes to help this woman. After the two previous healings, we’ve already lost a bit of our awe at Jesus’ healing ability. We know Jesus will heal her and he does. What’s striking in this story is that she leaps up off her sick bed and makes dinner for Jesus and his entourage. Why did Matthew include this odd little detail? Why wasn’t someone bringing her some chicken soup? Why was she the one doing the cooking? We could say because she was a Jewish woman and a mother and she loved to feed people, but in this context that’s a bit superficial. What Matthew is telling us is that when Jesus heals, he heals completely.
Jesus goes on to heal so many people, that there’s too many stories for Matthew to tell. He sums up, “That evening a lot of demon-afflicted people were brought to him. He relieved the inwardly tormented. He cured the bodily ill” (vs. 16). We know Jesus still heals today. Many of us have known his healing power either for ourselves or for others. With faith and humility all we can do is ask, and trust that Christ will bring the kind of healing we need most to make us whole.
Matthew ends this section with a quote from the prophet Isaiah 53: 3 – 5, and I can’t think of a better way to sum up the willingness, the power, the authority and thoroughness of Jesus our healer,
“ He was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely, he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases,
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities,
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.”
Silent Prayer and Reflection
God of our well-being, you watch over us like a mother watches over her newborn child. Help us to grow into strong and healthy people who can offer you our best, just as we offer these gifts. Amen.
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession adapted from a prayer by Bruce Prewer
We thank you God, for your mercy and love, and for your death upon the cross which destroyed the power of sin, brought us back into relationship with you and makes us whole.
We thank you for your unending grace and power, and for your glorious resurrection which conquered death, lifted us up into the heavenly places and gave us the fullness of life.
We are thankful that you care not only for us, but for all creation and all people within it. We thank you that though we are undeserving you know us completely.
Holy Friend, Healer and Liberator, we lift up before you those people who are at this very moment suffering from accident, disease, their own folly, or the cruelty of others.
Forgive our human iniquities and heal our many diseases.
Many people in our world suffer the cruelty of captivity: Hostages and abducted children, prisoners of war and political detainees, those persecuted for their faith and those who are mistakenly convicted.
Lord, comfort them as a caring mother comforts her children and set them free.
We hold up to you those who are suffering physical and mental abuse: women and children who are battered, others beaten for their property or for simply being who they are, people tortured for information, verbally abused and denigrated, left with untended wounds, threatened with the injury of loved ones, sexually molested or slowly killed.
Lord, look with love upon the weak, the innocent and the unloved.
Move those who perpetuate such actions to repentance.
We think of people who are traumatised by sudden injury: Victims of industrial or vehicular accidents, soldiers wounded in battle, civilians bombed or terrorised, those maimed by the carelessness of others, and some who for personal thrills have taken big risks and lost.
Lord, send your healing Spirit to restore our wounded bodies and minds.
We remember those who are in terror or despair because of natural disasters: Floods and house fires, hurricanes and earthquakes, avalanches or forest fires, drought or lightning strike, storm waves or volcanic eruption.
Lord of all creation, who calms the waves, calm the terrors of nature.
Help each of us to care for the earth and to become better stewards responsive to nature’s needs.
Holy Friend, your Church is not without our own wounds, nor have are we innocent when it comes to the wounding of others. Heal us and heal those whom we have hurt. Help each Christian to do whatever we can to lesson the multiple sufferings of humanity.
Please have mercy on your church, O God.
Through Jesus Christ our Saviour and hear us as we pray together saying…
The Lord’s Prayer
God sends us out:
We have been healed and made whole
God sends us out to bring life to others in the name of Jesus
We go out as channels of his healing mercy,
And as bearers of his unending grace.
May the Triune God bless you and keep you. Amen.