This is one of those Sundays when I would rather not preach. Perhaps that isn’t something I should admit but it’s honest. It’s not because I’m tired or unmotivated. I have plenty of energy. And it has nothing to do with the snow. Today is a day when I would rather not preach because today is a day when it is easy to fall prey to platitudes. Today is a day when it is easy to throw out banal clichés, sugary sweet sentiments that do an injustice to the realities of life and to the power of the Gospel.
I have this feeling whenever we read stories about Jesus healing someone. I have this urge to run from the story, this urge to avoid it and preach on something else. It isn’t because I don’t believe in our Lord’s power to heal. Quite to the contrary, I believe in it completely. I have seen my fair share of miracles. I have seen cancers disappear one day when they were easily diagnosed the day before. I have seen folks who were clinically dead resuscitated, folks who go on to live full and healthy lives. I have seen healthy children grow from infants who were so ill that they were not expected to have any quality of life. I have seen marriages saved; marriages that I believed had no chance of survival. I believe in miracles and I believe in the power of God to heal. What I don’t like, what I don’t want to deal with, is the reality that some people are healed and some are not, some people receive the miracles they ask for and some don’t.
I have been in ordained ministry for thirteen years. In that time, I have sat by the bedsides of hundreds of people. I have been called to the emergency room in the middle of the night numerous times. I have held the hand of another dying Christian so often that it has almost become commonplace. And I have prayed for everyone who has asked me to pray for them, no matter what the request. But in all that time I have no more insight into why things happen the way they do. I have no more clarity about the mystery of life and death. After all these years I still have no idea why some people are healed and some are not, why some people get their miracle and some do not.
And here is where it becomes easy to fall prey to platitudes. I am tempted to soften this hard truth by proclaiming that all people of faith receive the healing they ask for whether they live or whether they die, that all people who want healing are in fact healed in some way whether or not it is the healing they have asked for. I am tempted to say that miracles always occur, they just may not be the ones we want or come in the form we hoped for. While all this is true, it is just too easy. Try sitting beside the bed of someone in agony and tell them that although God is not removing the pain, God is caring for them in other ways. You may be telling them the truth, but for someone in that situation it is a truth with a hollow ring. Try telling someone who has just experienced the death of the person they love the most in life that they just have to hold on and eventually they will see there is grace even in this awful event. You may be telling them the truth but it is not a truth that can take them very far when they feel as if their heart has just been ripped out.
I would rather not preach today because I have too much respect for the people I have seen suffer to sell them short with easy answers. I know there is a God. I believe this God loves you and me more than we ever fully realize. I have faith that at the end of this life, there will be something more, some other life and that Jesus has made this new life possible. But I have no idea why this loving, life giving God behaves the way he does.
When I was a seminarian working as a hospital chaplain one summer, I had the opportunity to minister to a young woman who scared me to death. We were both about 24 and she was very sick. She was covered from head to toe in raw scaly patches of flaking skin. She had a severe case of psoriasis that was in fact threatening her life. Now lots of people have psoriasis. In fact, all the grown men in my family, myself included, have battled this disease on our legs, and arms and backs and faces for many decades. But this young woman didn’t have any normal skin left at all. The psoriasis we have in places she had everywhere. Her skin was in such distress that she was highly prone to infection and she was very ill.
This young woman really frightened me. She frightened me at first because she looked so horrible. But she frightened me more deeply because in her I could see my possible future. We shared a disease in common and while it was unlikely, I could one day be in her place. And at 24 that was not a thought I was prepared to deal with. However, I forced myself to do my job and minister to this young woman. Everyday that summer we would sit and talk and pray together as she underwent one form of treatment after another. Sometimes we would sit in silence and I can remember thinking that in Jesus’ day she would be considered a leper. The people of first century Palestine did not make distinctions between skin ailments. To them, if it looked at all like leprosy then it was leprosy. Everyone with any chronic skin condition was considered an outcast and a pariah.
In our gospel for today, Jesus takes the risk to touch a leper who came to him seeking healing. He touched him and made him well. This leper got his miracle. My leper never got hers, at least not in the weeks we spent together. We prayed for it, we wanted it, but it didn’t happen. The day she went home the infection that threatened her life was under control but her skin was no better.
It is very difficult to endure suffering and it is very difficult to watch someone who suffers. Suffering is beyond understanding and eventually it comes to us all. Frequently we can’t fix it or stop it and we can never know why God doesn’t fix it and stop it more often. There are no easy answers.
So what do we do? Well, here is what I hold onto. In our gospel for today, Jesus did two things – he touched the leper and he healed him. We have no control over the healing power of God because miracles are not within our power. But I can reach out and touch the life of another and allow myself to be touched. There may be no answers to the great mysteries of life but there is comfort, real love and deep meaning to be found by sharing in life’s struggles, by walking through the valley of the shadow of death with someone, holding someone’s had through a night of tragedy, or just listening and praying with someone in need. Every sick, hurting and wounded person I have ever tried to minister to has touched me, changed me and through God’s grace, I hope something I have done has affected them too.
Ultimately, we have to let go and let God decide about the miracles, who gets them and who doesn’t. Still, our Lord promises that whenever two or three are gathered together in his name that he will be with us. In essence, by being together, by reaching out to one another, by allowing our lives to touch, we make God real in our midst. We cannot control this life, but we can share it with one another. We need not walk the journey alone. We may not be able to always make things right, but we can make it through the worst of life if we make it as God’s children, together in the name of Christ. Amen.