It Is Well

Passage: Luke 8:26-39
Date: June 23, 2019
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
Guest Preacher:

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Sermon

It doesn’t interest me if there is one God or many gods.

I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned.

If you know despair or can see it in others.

I want to know if you are prepared to live in the world with its harsh need to change you. If you can look back with firm eyes saying this is where I stand.

I want to know if you know how to melt into that fierce heat of living falling toward the center of your longing.

I want to know if you are willing to live, day by day, with the consequence of love and the bitter unwanted passion of sure defeat.

I have been told, in that fierce embrace, even the gods speak of God.1

Those words by poet David Whyte came to mind when I met a young transgender woman. She was visibly shaking, even twitching. The woman looked to be about 20 or so. She was shy about making eye contact and very nervous. I was moved by her courage, for the first time, to walk into the unfamiliar church building that looks like a fortress from the outside. She asked for prayer to relieve her from the anxiety that always inhabits her. With a hand on her shoulder, and breathing deeply, we prayed. After a while, she sighed heavily and the shaking ceased, at least for the time being. I wondered about the relationships in her life—her parents, her friends, possibly her church. Was rejection the root of her everyday anxiety?  Had she felt she belonged or was abandoned? I don’t know.

What do these questions have to do with this passage we heard this morning? To answer that, and to get to an understanding of healing and wholeness, we need explore the context of illness in the Biblical world. In this story of the man with demon possession, we see that he is so affected by his disease that he is not in his right mind.He had been shackled and chained but broke through to live in the wild, alone. He had no house but existed among the tombs, naked. All was not well in him, and all was not well in his community.

In this story, even in the midst of healing, there is still brokenness. Jesus sends the demons into a herd of pigs who topple into the sea and drown. What about the swineherds, who lost their income when pigs died? And, what about this “healing” from the perspective of those intelligent pigs? If this were a movie, we could not claim that “no animals were harmed in the making of this miracle.” Of course, this scripture is from a time and world view that didn’t have modern awareness and sensibilities. And yet, even across the centuries, there still rings a universal need when we picture the man, separated from love, alone among the tombs, and the demons say, “My name is Legion.” 

Today, we could name a legion of problems plaguing us. Flight towards the brink of war with Iran; a four-month-old baby separated from his father at the U.S.-Mexico border; thousands and thousands of children innocent of any crime in worse-than-prison conditions; looming disasters from climate reality. And there are the personal concerns, illness, loss, and grief. A legion of tormenting concerns…

In the Gospels, there are more passages dealing with Jesus’ healing than any other activity. Jesus placed whole-person healing at the forefront of his message with his affirmation that God’s abundant life embraces the totality of a person’s being. And the healing often included restoring the individual to the community and belonging.

We live in a very different world than Jesus, the Gospel writers, and Jesus’ first followers, and we have different names for diseases and different understandings of their causes, but like the early Christians, we still face chronic illness, debilitation, mental illness, and death. We still need healing. The modern world views miracle as a supernatural violation of the laws of nature. But the Biblical tradition understands the entire world as a reflection of divine activity. The world is an open system in which God is an intimate presence.

The theology behind healing and wholeness is a belief in Love that seeks abundance for all things. Healing is not just about the individual, but transforms bodies, spirits, and relationships. Wholeness is rooted in the Hebrew notion of shalom: an inward sense of wholeness. Not just an absence of conflict and war, but completeness and tranquility.

Jesus restores the man’s sanity and his belonging. People are struck with awe (that word translated as “fear”) when they see that he is clothed and in his right mind. The healing happens in the community as well as in him. For Jesus, body, mind, and spirit interpenetrate one another seamlessly. I believe it’s true for us today, too. Social relationships shape not only our faith but also our health.

Friends, in the midst of the madness happening in the world, we are surrounded by God’s love wherever we are. Isn’t part of why we gather for worship, a sense of belonging? Don’t we show up together to be reminded that God is with us? Isn’t it to recall that we have the resources to face whatever lies ahead? When we share a meal and serve, when we sing together and pray, we are reminded that we belong and that we are strong.

Over the years, I’ve felt that one of Westminster’s best kept secrets is our Service of Healing and Wholeness. For the past 19 years, every third Saturday of the month, about 12 to 20 of us show up to provide a safe, quiet, and sacred space for contemplative music, sung prayer, candle-lighting, and optional hands-on healing prayer. “Taizé” is the name of a town in France, a Protestant monastic community that, since the end of World War II, gathers in the name of peace, sings, chants, reads the Bible, and welcomes people of all nations. Our Westminster service of includes music in the Taizé style. This all happens because a wonderful team of musicians, worship hosts, and our prayer team prepare. The prayer team meets ahead of the service for contemplative prayer, to center us.

When we offer healing prayer, we make a distinction between “healing” and “curing.” First of all, we ourselves are not the healers. We open ourselves to be available for God to bring about healing and wholeness through us. We trust that healing can come in a variety of ways, including relief of pain, peace of mind and heart, reconciliation, and forgiveness. We trust that God’s intimate love for the world responds to suffering in all its manifestations.

The Reverend Bruce Epperly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a professor of practical theology noted that it’s very important to remember, as we participate in healing prayer, that the interplay of God and our prayers and faith make a difference, but not the only difference in our spiritual lives and health outcomes.Medicine, therapies, and other resources work together for healing. Though sometimes we can recognize healing, there are also many times when it seems that our prayers were not answered.2 It’s important to avoid speculation as to why some people aren’t healed in the way we expect. That way can lead to blaming the person in need of healing!

Though I do not understand the mystery of answered and unanswered prayer, I continue to pray for healing and transformation because I believe that our prayers are woven together in the dynamic fabric of life to bring wholeness. I believe that together we make a difference in the well-being of others. This is neither magic nor manipulation but openness to God’s love and healing presence. This doesn’t guarantee that cures will occur but affirms that when there cannot be a cure (a remission of illness), our prayers can be part of God’s healing process that enables people to experience peace in disability and death.

My late husband,Daniel, who had a long struggle with a rare cancer, attended the Taizé Service of Healing and Wholeness as often as he was able. While our prayer (and all the other therapies he tried) did not cure the cancer, he did experience inexplicable peace before his death. Watching my proud, willful, and determined husband accept his death was profound. 

God’s dream for us is wholeness. Last Sunday, a group of us from Westminster, along with about 45,000 other people, participated in marching and cheering in the Portland Pride Parade. Seeing thousands of waving rainbows, people of all ages and walks of life cheering and clapping, high-fiving and smiling affirmation to our church groups, was a communal healing. The Community of Welcoming Congregations, of which Westminster is a member, carried a banner that said: “People of Faith Standing on the Side of Love.” That is a good expression of what Jesus was about as he touched, listened, and restored to wholeness the man living alone among the tombs. Being a source of healing means beings authentic, centered in love.

Friends, this is not a time for the faint of heart, not a time to crave the escape into the abyss.It’s a time to boldly work for healing, to clear away fear and resentment that would block God’s Spirit from courageous love, truth, and compassion.

I’d like us to close this sermon together, with sung prayer, music from the Taizé community. If you open the blue hymnal to #599 you’ll see “Jesus, Remember Me.” It’s very simple and very short. You don’t really even need the book to learn it. I’m going to ask Michael for the pitch, and I’ll sing it through one time without any accompaniment. Then, I invite you as you feel ready, to join in our sung prayer. We’ll repeat it a number of times. If you want to harmonize, please do it. We are going to sing it enough times for the prayer to soak into our hearts. We’ll let the song fade away naturally, and let the silence follow.

Brother Roger of the Taizé Community said, “Nothing is more conducive to a communion with the living God than meditative common prayer, with, as its high point, singing that never ends, but continues in the silence of one’s heart, when one is alone again.”

1 “Self Portrait” by David Whyte from Fire in the Earth © 1992 by David Whyte, used by permission.
2 Reiki Healing Touch and the Way of Jesus, by Bruce Epperly, PhD, and Katherine Gould Epperly, DMin.