August 16, 2020 - Sermon - Rev. Judy Bagley-Bonner

This service was livestreamed due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Sermon Text

     “Healing and Serving”

     So, we have ourselves another healing story this morning.  The liturgical calendar gives us lots of them during this long season between Pentecost and Advent known as ordinary time, where the focus is on Jesus’ three year ministry.  And indeed, the healing stories are so frequent in his ministry, that we might indeed call them ordinary.  All in a day’s work.  But what are we to make of them? For us, these two thousand plus years later, healings of these sorts are anything but ordinary.  What do these stories have to do with us in 2020?

     Well, as I mentioned last time I spoke, there are a number of ways we can interpret the healing stories, all being theologically legitimate in my opinion.  We can receive them at face value and interpret them literally, as historical events that happened in real time.  Or we can receive them metaphorically, where restoration of sight, for example, might mean someone gaining a whole new way of seeing, a new level of insight.  Usually I am drawn to these more metaphorical ways of understanding scripture, but as I mentioned to you in my last sermon, I don’t struggle so much with the miracle stories.  And the reason is in the back-story.  Sudden, dramatic healings don’t seem so unbelievable if we pull out the lens, look at the bigger picture, and consider the way God created the world in the first place.  Indeed, in that larger context, healings would be a seamless part of life, and perfectly normal.

     So, to pull out the lens and take the long view, let’s go all the way back to the first theme of scripture, creation as good. The world radiated, we might say, with blessing and wholeness and balance and joy and diversity and creativity.  Everything was in synch.  The earth and all its inhabitants were  “in the zone”,  so to speak, intricately in balance and humming like a top.  The garden was, by all accounts, a perfect habitat of biodiversity, delight and peaceful coexistence.   The lion and the lamb lay down together. And it’s clear that God loved not just humans, but all the creation.  The text takes great trouble to enumerate Gods creativity in all of nature.  God cares for the whole planet, and for its delicate interconnectedness.  And there was intimate, daily connection between God and the creatures, who are said to have danced and played together in harmony with each other and with God.  Things flowed easily and naturally.   You know how it is on those days when you feel “in the zone”?  How everything just flows along in perfect synch, and it seems like life’s chute has somehow been greased for you?  That’s the first two chapters of Genesis…a sense of overarching blessing,  wholeness and things emerging in perfect order for everybody’s highest good…Perhaps the most foundational truth of scripture is that this is how God  intended it to be.  God created all things good and it all flowed in grace.  So in one sense,  we can say there would be no need for healing because nothing was fallen.  But had it been, restoration would have been immediate!  Wholeness was the norm!  Healing would indeed have been ordinary and all in a day’s work.  Spiritual law ruled the day.

       Of course, we all know what happens next.   Enter theme Two: Into this original scene of blessing, what theology calls “The Fall” emerges, and by the third chapter, its all gone to Hell in a hand-basket.  In the third chapter of Genesis, this perfect, balanced world slips hopelessly off its axis, and the twenty-twenty, crystal clarity blurs such that they could only see through the glass dimly…The story our forebearers used to get at this tragic loss of wholeness had to do with a man, a woman, a snake and an apple…but the deeper truth they were trying to communicate was  that somehow that beautiful, joyful, delicate balance was tragically lost.  The fog rolled in and the crystalline, spiritual atmosphere bogged down to the likes of a sleety Cleveland day in mid-March, metaphorically speaking.  And it all became  like slogging through mud.  


Everything took a hundred times the effort for one hundredth the result.  Communication with God was no longer face to face, but like telephone calling through tin cans on a string, and even that not often.   Whats more, the humans’  relationships with each other became difficult, full of miscommunication and misunderstanding.   Everything got complicated; they started having “issues,” and the garden became overrun with those pernicious skunk weeds, the ones with the impossibly long tap roots that are nearly impossible to pull up, and crowd out the good stuff.   

    And we somehow have a primal sense of it, don’t we?  I’ll admit, I can’t relate to the concept of sin in the Augustinian sense of personal, shameful badness somehow being transmitted through the human act of procreation.  But as I  said a few weeks back, I can relate to it in the sense of a larger condition of estrangement and struggle and distortion in the world.


  Isaiah says it’s like a shroud covering the whole world. And I do think we have a sense of it, especially on those days when everything just seems difficult.  Actually, I think we have a sense of both, both the original grace and balance and goodness and  the quick to follow distortion of all that into perennial struggle.  And that’s what makes life and certainly theology so complicated.     Certain schools of theology only want to look at the original goodness, and say that sin isn’t real.  At the opposite extreme, are those who  want to forget that the world and human beings were created in Gods image, and focus only on sin, hellfire and brimstone.  And as is so often the case, I believe the truth is both/and.  

     We were made in Gods own image, and still carry that basic pattern of love and grace and glory as our deepest identity.    And we operate much of the time out of that grace and blessing and wholeness with one another.   But let one little thing go wrong and it can get ugly fast, can’t it?  We see it in our  individual lives and in our collective lives together: injustice, polarization, pandemics, racism, obscene income disparity, oppression of the marginalized. The results of sin, estrangement, are everywhere.  Ironically, this is where healing would be most needed, but, given the atmosphere, would be least likely to spring forth.

      On to basic Biblical theme number three: what theology calls redemption.  which has to do with God seeking to find another way to heal and restore both us, and I believe the whole creation, back to its original grace.  A restoration of that pre-fall Kingdom of God!  And so, our faith tells us, God covenants with the people and gives laws to restore order.  And when that fails, God sends prophet after prophet.  Finally, God decides to communicate in the simplest possible terms and instead of using words, draws us a picture, if you will:  enter Jesus, the embodiment of wholeness, healing, grace and love.  And he didn’t just teach by example, either.   Because after he was martyred for his integrity, they found out that not even death could ultimately defeat that highly potent, bursting love kind of healing.

     So it’s within this larger context that we must consider the question of spiritual healing.  When you look at it this way, from a broad, theological history, it makes a certain amount of sense that Christ, personification of the pre-fall Kingdom of God, would come bearing signs of that other world.  Healing would not so much be an interruption of the normal way of being, as restoration of that original, higher way of being.  

     CS Lewis, in his book, “Miracles” puts it slightly differently still: He says, ““The character (of spiritual healing) can easily be obscured by the somewhat magical view which many people still take…There is a sense in which no doctor  ever heals.  The doctors themselves would be the first to admit this.  The magic is not in the medicine but in the patient's body- the recuperative or self-corrective energy of Nature.  What the treatment does is to stimulate Natural functions or to remove what hinders them.   We speak for convenience of the doctor, or the dressing healing the cut.  But in another sense, every cut heals itself…that same mysterious force which we call gravitational when it steers the planets and biochemical when it heals a live body, is the real cause of all recoveries.  And the energy proceeds from God in the first instance.  All who are cured are cured by God, not merely in the sense that God's providence provides them with medical assistance and wholesome environments, but also in  the sense that their very tissues are repaired by the far-descending energy which, flowing from God, energizes the whole system of nature.” 

     In other words, Healing  is not so much an intervention in natural law, as a restoration of spiritual law!    All healing comes from God whether it happens in a moment of whether it takes ten days or ten months or ten lifetimes.  

     And here’s the other thing that must be said at this point:  I believe that the whole universe is bending towards healing, under the influence of a robust, universal “immune system,” moving in fits and starts toward that restoration of the pre-fall Kingdom of God.  As part of that, everyone gets healed from all infirmities.  But the hard part is that not everyone gets healed here and now.  For reasons we simply do not understand, those restorations do not occur in all cases or even most cases here and now.  But again, we must take the long view.  I believe with every fiber of my being that even when the healings we long for do not occur here and now, they will, after we slip through the veil.  In a moment. In the twinkling of an eye.

     In my last sermon with you, the one about the man born blind receiving sight after Jesus made a paste for his eyes of mud and spit,  I talked about why I  believe the accounts of Jesus healing people.  Basically it boils down to the fact that I believe Jesus, manifestation of the perfect Kingdom, carried an energy within and about him that was so palpably whole and transforming, that  those with whom he came in contact could probably not help but be changed.  And as the body of Christ now, maybe to a clumsy and very limited degree, we sometimes can do it for each other.

         Several years ago, I had the opportunity to get to know some of the Ursuline nuns. Now the Ursulines are a lot like the “nuns on the bus” if you remember them, always in trouble with institutional authorities, open to other religious traditions, and working passionately for social justice, etc.  (A lot like Jesus!)  Well, the nun I knew best, Sister Ann, told me a powerful story of one summer when the whole order in Cleveland went away on retreat together for an extended time.  These were nuns who poured themselves out in activism; in serving the world, mostly poor women and children, and by the end of their program year, they were exhausted mentally, emotionally and spiritually.  So they went together as spiritual community and spent the whole summer together in group prayer, meditation, reflection, spiritual conversation, recreation, laughter, etc.  And sister Ann said that near the end of their time there, they began to notice something they didn’t expect, which was that they were feeling better physically.  Medical assessments when they got home confirmed it.  Blood pressures were dramatically down. Blood sugar problems in diabetics were stabilized. Aches and pains were mysteriously gone. One progressive disease was even halted in its tracks, and went into an unexplained remission.

     Now we could say that this was all a result of slowing down their hectic lives, eating better because the retreat center was cooking healthy food for them, having the time to get some exercise, etc. And no doubt it was all of those things.  But I suspect it was more than that.  Inasmuch as they embodied for one another the literal Body of Christ, and inasmuch as they were all especially reconnected to that potent spirit of God, I think they were immersed in a collective, healing energy that was different than their usual lifestyles, that was more like the energy of the pre-fall Kingdom of God!  Sister Ann once explained it to me by characterizing the usual energy field we live with like this…sort of fast and staccato.  But there is a different, more healing kind of energy field that can be characterized like this…its more like what existed before the fall, and will again when the Kingdom of God comes with power.  And it’s a  place we can access, at least to some degree, through prayer and meditation, and the more time we spend there, the more healing can happen, the more our own immune systems can do their job.  Indeed, since energy is a real thing, a literal thing, I think that immersion in that kind of energy can do amazing things…  And I think that was also what happened with Peter’s mother in law. Jesus, as the emobodiment of love, of God, was filled with this energy of peace and wholeness, the energy of the kingdom of God. And I believe that energy was so palpable that it probably wafted off of him.  And I think it was so powerful that it could indeed heal those who got within its radius. 

      I think that Jesus, being intensely present to others, out of a deep spiritual centeredness in his source, had an energy about him that could not help but heal those who got close to him.  And when we, the Body of Christ now, live from that kind of energy, then we, though to a clumsy and far less developed extent, share in that healing power.  We raise each other up, the same way those Isaiah 40 wings of eagles, symbol for God’s love, can raise us up, can cure the metaphorical fevers that beset us: fevers of self-centeredness and greed and jealousy and gossip and rage and racism and heterosexism and nationalism and arrogance and hurtful sarcasm and yes, sometimes maybe even of literal fevers.  I think that closeness to, maybe immersion in, the Spirit of wholeness can sometimes heal us.

     And here comes the really important part for us: The scripture says that after Peter’s mother in law was healed of her fever, after Jesus had lifted her up, she immediately began to serve.  Well folks, here’s the deal: we are now the literal Body of Christ.  We are the only Jesus plenty of people will ever meet.  And we, too, are healed in order that we can get up and serve.   It’s not a matter of being healed just for our own gratification, its a matter of using that new, healed spirit to get busy changing the world.  Blessed to be a blessing.

     We are to do this in our collective life together by being the healing Body of Christ as Faith UCC.  When we met physically, I heard it regularly in the line after church from newcomers who would say, “I felt something when I walked in here.”   That’s it.  That’s Jesus’ wafting energy that is greater than the sum of our parts…I know another church that has it too, and when I enter there, it almost felt like something is coming up underneath my elbow to raise me up to a slightly higher plane. That’s what we are to do for one another and for every new person who enters our circle, and perhaps most importantly for the people outside, to whom we need to go in loving service.

     And that warm, loving, healing energy here must be protected at all costs. I don’t mean that we will never have conflicts.  We will, but we can resolve them in direct and clean ways,  and if they cannot be resolved, which they maybe sometimes can’t, we can learn to peacefully coexist, and at least not fuel them.  And as we protect, first and foremost, that healing energy,  and root it always in prayer, it will grow and people will indeed be drawn to it as to  sun after the winter, or to water after thirst.  And then, from the strength of being community together, we can do our real work which is, simply put and as my elderly mother often said it,  to serve others.

     George Bernard Shaw said this about serving: 
"This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy."

     Albert Schweitzer put it this way:
"I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve."

     And finally, from Martin Luther King Jr.
"Everybody can be great...because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love."

     A heart full of grace and a soul generated by love. That’s pretty much the very definition of Jesus Christ. And that grace and love can heal.  And we are now to be Jesus Christ to the world.  Freed from our fevers and rooted in prayer, raised up on wings of eagles, we, too are to live out of a palpable sense of healing energy, to direct it and channel it to all with whom we come in contact… And that kind of energy cannot help but raise up the world on wings of eagles.