Christina Kukuk Sermon: “All Kinds of Healing” (Jan 26, 2020)

Rev. Christina Kukuk
2020-01-26

January 26, 2020 // Narr 2.21 Epiphany // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // First Congregational UCC, Ashland, OR // “All Kinds of Healing, All Kinds of Ways” // Mark 2:1-12, Mark 2:13-17

 

Intro

Friday afternoon in a Medford conference room, it was my honor to hear a story of healing first-hand. As one of the Board of Directors of the United Way of Jackson County at our annual retreat, I got to receive the gift of someone’s story at our all-day annual retreat. That gift came from a guest speaker described for us her ten-year journey of recovery from schizo-affective disorder, PTSD and depression. A participant of the “In Our Own Voice” program of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, our speaker said that telling her story in itself was part of her healing, a recovery that remains an ongoing process. “Each time I learn a little bit better how to cope,” she said. It wouldn’t have begun without other human beings helping to make a way. When she was finally able to open herself to what she called “the risk of living,” it was because of a support network, beginning with a doctor who did not shame her suicide attempt, but rather showed concern and care.[1] “I did not recover from pneumonia all by myself,” our guest told us. “I did not recover from depression and PTSD all by myself.” (Pause)

 

Trans.

This should come as no surprise to us. It would come as no surprise to Jesus: None of us heals from sickness or disease on our own. (Pause)

 

I.

That might be the first thing we who tend toward rugged individualism notice in this challenging story of healing told by Mark: that the man who cannot walk has four friends carry him to healing. Friends so dedicated the will dig through the roof when they can’t get through the front door. “Jesus saw their faith…” Their faith – the friends’ faith and dogged determination to bring their friend close to the power at work in Jesus. Neither Jesus nor the storyteller tell us anything about the disabled man’s faith. That’s not what concerns them, and it’s not what brings the healing in this story. It’s also not the inability to walk that seems to be the problem at first. Moved by the friends’ faith, Jesus first forgive the man’s sins. It’s only when a controversy erupts in the minds of the legal experts muttering silently to themselves nearby, that Jesus floats the idea of fixing things so the man can again walk. It’s almost as if healing the physical ailment happens primarily to prove to the skeptics around him that Jesus does in fact have the power to do both. He is claiming his authority, and that title “Son of Man” comes with a slightly apocalyptic accent: An ambassador of that day, the scriptural euphemism for when God will restore everything. Jesus goes on to heal over and over again. But it isn’t only in Mark’s day that healing stories generate controversy. (Pause)

 

I.

Mark tells 17 miracle stories about Jesus in the first nine chapters of his gospel, and most of them are stories of healing. So, why don’t we hear more about healing when we gather in this place? I’m reminded of an experience from about 8 or 9 years ago. Apparently, because we were Americans, the good people running worship at the Iona Abbey in Scotland were a little nervous, and as Tuesday approached, I got some thoughtful looks and tentative questions. “So, do you do prayers for healing in your tradition?” one housemate-for-the-week asked at breakfast. “Have you participated in a healing service before?” Of course, I said. Why do you ask? And then noticed that face people can get when they want to ask a question but aren’t sure quite how to put it without offending or making things awkward: “What kind of healing service? What was it like?” the questioner followed. With some embarrassment, they admitted they could never tell what Americans might expect from a healing service: people falling down and convulsing… or something else. And this is partly why we don’t hear much about healing in space like this: Because preachers like me are scared and skittish about it, for one thing. (I checked to see if I had ever preached on healing in my four years here so far, and I couldn’t find one specific sermon in which I did.) We worry that to talk about healing in this place means to somehow broadcast the message that we reject 2,000 years of science and medicine even when we don’t. We worry that to talk about healing might imply that those of us who haven’t had the physical ailments fixed, that those who’s loved one did not recover from cancer or who’s friend was not able to withstand the pain of depression – that to speak of healing would somehow imply that God did not hear those prayers. And we worry, too, that to talk about healing may create the impression that we devalue humans who live with disability and/or illness as somehow less than complete, as broken or less-than. These are some of the worries Karen Staal and Linda Wilson have tangled with as they’ve led their class on Healing in the Christian Tradition, offered Sundays this month. When it comes to healing, we have so many questions and so much confusion. Healing in our tradition brings some baggage, spiritual and social. (Pause)

 

I.

What we need is less Benny Hinn and more Jesus. To listen less to televangelism’s spectacle and more the person sitting next to us in the pew. Because 2,000 years later, even in a very different culture, the power of God in Jesus still heals. “It’s important to remember that the question raised by Mark’s original audience would not have been: ‘Can Jesus do miracles?’” New Testament scholar Bonnie Thurston writes. “Their world accepted and was filled with miracle workers (some of whom we still know by name: Eleazar, Honi, Hanina ben Dosa, Apollonius of Tyana – were some of the superheroes of the healing world at the time). The crowds around Jesus would not have asked, Does Jesus do miracles? Instead, they would ask: ‘By whose power does Jesus do miracles?’ … and to what end? [in other places, especially in John, Jesus specifically denounces the idea that illness or disability is punishment for sin.] Mark relates miracles stories, in part, to demonstrate that Jesus manifests the power of God.”[2] In today’s story, Jesus is not making just one human – but a community – whole. “The healing Jesus heals whole people, spirits and bodies,” Thurston writes. “Jesus ‘puts people back together.’”[3] And a large part of what gets “put back together” for the man who is paralyzed, for the woman from NAMI telling her recovery story, for each one of us, is the bond that illness and brokenness so often sever between human beings and the source of life. (Pause)

 

I.

What I found most beautiful about the healing service in Iona Abbey was how those who “carried the mat” (as it were) and those who needed and received the healing kept switching places. We were invited to step forward and kneel on a circle of cushions around a candle and a cross. We would step forward and kneel down while another person laid a hand on our shoulder and prayed either for our own need or one sent to the Abbey from somewhere else in the world. Then the one who received the healing prayer stood up and traded places with the one who offered their hand in help. On those Tuesday nights in the Abbey, the Iona Community offers by way of explanation some words Concerning Prayer for Healing and the Laying on of Hands:

“We each stand in need of healing, but in this ministry we recognize also the social dimension. The healing of divided communities and nations, and the healing of the earth itself, have their place alongside the healing of broken bodies, hurt minds and wounded hearts, and of the hurts and divisions within ourselves. So too our prayers are complementary to the work of medicine and other forms of healing, which are also channels of God’s loving and transforming purpose.”[4]

Transformation. That is the Gospel. Jesus is embodying in the flesh – in the flesh of the one on the mat, and in the flesh of the ones carrying him, and in the flesh of the ones muttering to themselves on the side – he is embodying in this action the message he proclaimed at the first: The Kin-dom of God is very near. Turn and trust that Good News. So that this becomes a kin-dom where even the loathed, cheating tax collectors get reconnected and restored. It’s not he healthy who are in need of a physician, Jesus says. And the transformation we most need may not be the one others around us assume. But that is the Gospel: “God restores you, God forgives you, God heals you.”[5] And it often takes the faith of a community to carry us where we need to go to heal. (Pause)

 

I.

I’ve told Catherine’s story in this room before, three years ago. Catherine[6] had a pattern. Usually, when she called me to schedule an appointment, she was drunk. Those calls came during the day. Realizing she’d likely drunk dialed, I’d talk to her for awhile, trying to discern whether she was a danger to herself or her three little boys. We would schedule the appointment she requested, and then the night before or early the morning of, when she could be sure I was not at my desk, she’d leave a message on the office voicemail to cancel. In those messages, she usually sounded sober. This went on for a few years, as we tried to be her church through a couple hospitalizations for drug and alcohol addiction and other kinds of self-harm – all while her partner worked a low-wage job to care for those small boys. When we finally did meet and talk frankly during one of those stretches of sobriety after a hospitalization, Catherine asked to be re-baptized. She felt her sins were many. She’d catalogued them on paper she brought to our meeting: Steps 4, 5 and 8 on her path to recovery. She desperately wanted healing – a new life. (Pause) In the UCC, we don’t re-baptize as a rule, so when Catherine came asking for a ritual to give her a new start, I tried to talk her out of it. I said, in our tradition, these promises never need re-done – you can’t do anything bad enough for God to stop loving you – but they do sometimes need remembered. And we do, frequently, need help answering Christ’s call to turn back toward and trust those promises. A few months after Catherine asked to be re-baptized, we gathered in a small circle around the baptismal font on a Sunday afternoon. Catherine stood there, her partner by her side, together with three friends from her recovery group. She confessed the words and actions she most needed to unburden herself from. She asked for forgiveness, from God and others, for the things she’d said and done that had broken those relationships or caused harm. She asked for forgiveness. But you know what? We didn’t let her do all that alone. We all prayed for our own forgiveness, too, for our own healing. Then, I poured water into the font and traced, with water and oil, a cross on Catherine’s forehead, saying “You are and always will be: a beloved child of God.” No matter how many relapses happen from here. Catherine’s sins, which she believed were many, had been forgiven. But she wanted, she needed to hear it said out loud. (Pause)

Concl.

We need a community, so often, to carry us where we need to go to be healed. So, I want to invite you to get within arm’s reach of another human. (This is completely voluntary.) If they are willing – we are a congregation that practices consent, so please ask first, and don’t take it personally if they say no thanks. If they are willing, get within arm’s reach of someone and lay a hand on their shoulder or hold their hand. The blessing I most often offer a suffering person comes from the Iona Abbey prayer book, and I offer it with prayer and – if welcome – an anointing touch of oil. As I read this blessing, you can repeat after me, or simply pause to receive:

Spirit of the Living God, present with us now,

Enter you, body, mind and spirit,       

And heal you of all that harms you.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

 

[1] United Way of Jackson County is partnering with Medford Chamber of Commerce and Jackson County to offer free Mental Health First Aid trainings multiple times in the year ahead for this reason.

[2] Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, Augsburg Fortress, 2002), p. 26.

[3] Thurston, p. 29.

[4] The Iona Community, Iona Abbey Worship Book, (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2001), p. 88-91.

[5] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, “Jesus Heals and Teaches,” I Love to Tell the Story podcast #391, www.workingpreacher.org

[6] The name and some of the details of this story have been changed to protect privacy. A version of this story included in “Saving Sin?” sermon Feb. 19, 2017.