A sermon preached on August 25th, 2019 based upon Luke 13:10-17 entitled, “The Interconnected Dimensions of Healing”
The practice of what we call “medicine” reaches back to the beginning of recorded human history. I once read something that stayed with me, which was that up until perhaps a century or so ago the history of the practice of medicine was largely the history of the practice of the “placebo” effect — the well proven impact of ours beliefs on the health and healing of our bodies. If people believe that a pill will help them, even if the pill is nothing more than a sugar pill with no actual medicinal influence, there will be a measurable positive impact after people swallow the pill.
What we believe to be true is powerful, both positively and negatively. This is what has come to be referred to as the “mind-body” connection.
If people with an authority we trust tell us something about ourselves, we are prone to believe it. Some doctors more than others appreciate the power of the mind-body connection, and the power of the words they speak.
Fred Schlosshauer recently discovered at the age of 91 that he had three arteries that were 90% blocked. In that state, his doctor told Fred that because of these blockages he could suffer a heart attack at any time.
Presumably Fred had been in this delicate state of health for quite some time. During the time in which he was caring for his wife Grace during her decline, perhaps it was helpful that Fred had not known about his blocked arteries. With Grace so reliant upon his care, it wouldn’t have been a good time for Fred to undergo major surgery. Had he known he had such clogged arteries perhaps the unavoidable anxiety evoked by such knowledge could have been enough to trigger a heart attack.
So, recently Fred’s need for triple bi-pass surgery was diagnosed by his doctor but the problem, of course, was that bi-pass surgery represents a trauma that many 91 year old men simply aren’t equipped to survive.
I was struck by something that Fred’s son Gary told me, which was that the very reputable surgeon who ultimately performed Fred’s surgery wasn’t willing to do so until he had the opportunity to come and sit by Fred’s bedside and see Fred for himself. Which he did, and seeing Fred’s vitality — his quiet determination, and I suspect experiencing for himself Fred’s wonderful sense of humor — the surgeon decided that Fred had what it took to survive such a complicated operation.
And I suspect that Fred’s already positive attitude was re-enforced by this little ritual of the doctor coming to sit by his bedside. Fred must have thought to himself, “If this renowned doctor came and looked me in the eyes and liked what he saw, well I must indeed be good to go for surgery.”
During the course of surgery the doctor discovered that Fred actually had five arteries — not three — that required bi-pass, extending the time and complexity of the surgery.
Nonetheless Fred survived the surgery. This is a picture of Fred the day after his surgery.
The doctor declared to Fred that his remarkable ability to recover at the age of 91 from such intensive surgery makes him worthy of a place in the medical books. Being told this by the doctor, I suspect further bolstered Fred’s confidence in his recovery.
As Bob Keller mentioned when he preached two weeks ago, he is dealing with some serious health challenges involving both his lungs and his kidneys. For many years Fred has been under the care of a particular kidney doctor who has a reputation for being one of the most knowledgeable and competent doctors in his field, but who unfortunately has what you would call a lousy “bed-side manner”. Bob and Connie refer to him as “Dr. Doom and Gloom.” On a number of occasions over the years Bob has defied predictions of his doctor regarding the time table he could expect his disease to progress.
With Connie’s support, Bob has learned not to take the doctor’s predictions as “Gospel.” He has successfully counteracted the doctor’s negativity with his own faith and the support network that begins with Connie and extends to his church family and beyond. Sometimes doctors have been known to act as though the “MD” attached to their names stands for “Medical Deity.” Bob’s doctor has an impressive knowledge base. Hopefully Bob is helping him find some humility in relation to his tendency to claim more certainty than he possesses in regard to his patients and their capacity at times to defy the predictions of his statistical analysis.
With the experience of Fred and Bob in mind, certain things struck me as I encountered our Gospel story. As a faithful Jew, Jesus inherited a world view that includes an understanding of the connection between our physical and spiritual lives. This included an appreciation of the importance of keeping the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a gift from God during which we are to cease all our work in order to rest and be restored. It is a time in which we remember that at the deepest level of our being we are God’s beloved children – that this relationship isn’t something we earn – it is a gift of pure grace.
As the story reveals, the understanding of the Sabbath often gets warped by legalism, and because of this tendency to distort it’s true meaning and spirit over the ages we moderns have come to pretty much do away with the whole concept of a day of Sabbath. This is unfortunate because without the command to keep the Sabbath, we often don’t give ourselves permission to truly rest. We “escape” which is different from truly resting. I know I struggle with this, and I suspect you do as well. Without times of true rest along with work as a part of the rhythm of our lives we get stuck in perpetual hurry mode in which we experience life with greater anxiety.
The absence of real quality Sabbath time takes a toll not only on our spirits but also our body because our God-given immune system doesn’t get the opportunity it needs to restore our health and vitality. Bob and Connie are away this weekend camping in the woods. As this picture they posted from Facebook indicates, Bob and Connie know how to enter real Sabbath time.
So, on the Sabbath we are told that in the synagogue where Jesus is teaching there is “a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.”
With our modern, scientific world view we are prone to raise an eyebrow at this notion of a “spirit” being responsible for the woman’s physical affliction. We are inclined to see a spinal disorder such as one described here in strictly physical terms – perhaps a slipped disc or an arthritic growth along the spinal canal. Evoking the language of demonic spirits seems like a return to a superstitious world view that oppressed humanity before the advances of modern medicine.
But at the very least the language of oppressive spirits suggests the awareness we often lack of the power of the “mind-body” connection – the truth that our physical health is impacted by our spiritual or emotional health – the sort of thing I was getting at in talking about Fred and Bob.
The Gospel writer tells us that this woman “was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.” Consider the implications of this. For the most part, the woman’s eyesight would have been focused on the ground, making eye to eye contact with people a rarity. Her physical affliction would have gone hand in hand with a sense of isolation, raising questions of which came first the chicken or the egg? Did the physical affliction contribute to the isolation, or did the isolation contribute to the physical affliction?
As a woman her culture declares her to be a second class citizen, and over the course of 18 years of being “bent-over” she would have become increasingly “invisible” to her community. Perhaps her suffering has led people consciously or unconsciously to withdraw from her – it’s exhausting to empathize with her pain, and they can’t fix it, so they emotionally withdraw as a kind of self-protection.
The woman appears to be altogether passive in this story. She does not come asking for healing; Jesus takes the initiative and acts on her behalf.
Unlike the woman with the twelve year flow of blood from another healing story who takes the initiative to go out in public with the intention of touching Jesus in order to receive a healing it is safe to say this woman has lost the capacity to act boldly on her own behalf. Her bent-over posture and her passivity suggest she feels profoundly unworthy. She has received the message that she doesn’t count and has taken it to heart.
There is some ambiguity regarding what exactly Jesus does for this woman. What is clear is that in a context where she has become “invisible”, Jesus sees her and empathizes with her pain. His attention validates her inherent worth.
Jesus calls her forward. He declares to her that she is freed of her ailment, which in this case means she is liberated from the demonic spirit that has oppressed her — the spirit that has led her to see herself as unworthy of love and attention.
Jesus touches her in a tender, non-invasive manner, something that likely rarely happened in her life. People need to be touched in such a manner.
He lifts her up, allowing her to praise God — to be the person God created her to be.
He declares her a “daughter of Abraham”, restoring her to full and equal membership in her community.
Did he infuse her with divine power that healed her damaged spinal cord? Perhaps. But my point is that since the physical and spiritual dimensions of our lives are interconnected, clearly the healing that is taking place for this woman goes well beyond the physical.
Remember the doctor who looked into Fred’s eyes and declared him ready to undergo major surgery? Jesus is the great physician whose words and deeds tap into something buried very deep inside this woman. It’s the message of the anthem our kids sang on Confirmation Sunday: “No matter what people say, you are a child of God.”
It is in the follow up to the healing that we get some insight into the social dynamics through which the evil spirit had its impact.
The natural response of any person whose heart hasn’t been altogether calcified would be to rejoice in what has happened. “Praise God! This woman who has suffered for so long can now stand up straight!”
But the local authority figure – the leader of the synagogue – isn’t celebrating.
Somehow he feels threatened by the woman’s healing (and by Jesus’ innate authority.) Rigidly interpreting what Jesus has done on behalf of this woman as a form of work that is prohibited on the Sabbath, the man lashes out at the crowd of people for – in his words — seeking healing on the Sabbath. It is striking that he doesn’t lash out at Jesus who — if he were right — is the guilty party here.
This is classic bully behavior. Pick on the weak.
Why does the ruler of the synagogue do this? He does it because his own sense of worth depends upon his feeling superior to the people around him. He needs people to be crippled so he can feel whole.
This is one of the primary expressions of sin in our world. To some degree we all participate in this sin: We compare ourselves to others with our sense of worth determined by the judgments we render in these comparisons.
In the Kingdom of God, human worth isn’t a competition. It is the God-given baseline from which we all start.
The Kingdom of God broke into this world that day in the synagogue on the Sabbath.
There is a mystery to how the Kingdom of God breaks into our lives. Jesus pointed to this mystery with parables about seeds. Immediately after the story of the bent-over woman who suddenly stands up straight and tall praising God, Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God as being like a mustard seed that somebody plants in soil that brings forth a tree in which all the birds of the air can come and find shelter. Seeds are mysterious in that they can lie dormant in the soil, waiting for the right moment to suddenly break open and sprout forth.
How do we find the grace by which the seed of the kingdom breaks open within our lives? Sometimes somebody speaks a gracious word of to us — a word we can’t seem to be able to speak to ourselves — and suddenly we are empowered to stand up straight and tall and claim our place in God’s family.
Sometimes the Holy Spirit works directly in our hearts apart from the direct involvement of others, and we hear Jesus softly say to us, “My child, you are freed from your affliction.”
This is what I would invite you to come away with this morning: that through the grace of God the possibility of a greater wholeness and freedom will appear to you that will allow you to enter more fully into the abundant life and love that Gods has created you to experience, and through which God is seeking to bless this world.
Rachel Naomi Remen described how as a teenage girl she once encountered a blade of grass breaking through the cement on a sidewalk in New York and being fascinated by the determined life force the blade of grass represented to her. Later the blade of grass became a metaphor for her when she dealt with a diagnosis that her doctors told her would not allow her live beyond the age of forty. Overtime, deep inside her she found a similarly resilient life force given to her by God, and in connecting with this deepest part of herself she lives now well into her eighties, sharing the wisdom she has gained as a medical doctor and as a person living with illness regarding of the significance of the spiritual dimension to healing.