Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
"You have a very rare and extremely contagious condition," the doctor told his patient. "We're going to put you in an isolation unit, where you'll be on a diet of pancakes and pizza."
"Will pancakes and pizza cure my condition?" asked the worried patient.
"No," replied the doctor. "They're the only things we can slip under the door."
Silly, but it makes a point. When one is sick, there is often an undeniable sense of being isolated, whether due to being contagious, or by other’s good wishes to leave you alone so you can rest, or for the simple reason that many don’t know what to say to someone who is very ill. So, being sick can lead to a feeling of isolation and lack of connection with other humans. “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do,” Three Dog Night reminds us.
During my time in seminary, and like all other Episcopalians in formation, I took a chaplaincy course. My assignment, for a time, was the ICU floor at St. Jo’s in Bellingham. There, and understandably, I encountered some very sick individuals. Some of them, because of the category of their illnesses, were put in isolation, which is, as you know, a protocol that protected them and others them from the spread of disease. Therefore, at the door before any staff or family member could enter the room, there were disposable gloves, masks, and full body paper garments to don prior to anyone entering the room…for anything! BP measuring, temperature taking, heart-monitor adjusting or even visiting. When I would enter an isolation room, I always felt a sense of sadness for the individual in the bed, for their probable sense of isolation and possibly the feeling of being untouchable. Even when touched, even if it were to readjust bedding or insert a thermometer or be fed, even then, touch would be through gloved hands and adjacent to a crinkly paper-covered human with a masked face. I understand the reason for it all, but isolation and separation - along with a physical ailment, deliver a double whammy, if you ask me.
As we heard in this morning’s gospel reading, the two females must have had a deep and abiding sense of isolation, and both were quite ill. The unnamed woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years would have felt separated from society and labeled as unclean. She was unacceptable in any social setting, even among other women, and when people saw her coming, they stepped aside for fear of getting near to her, as even brushing up against her could have caused them to be ritualistically unclean. Think how frustrated she must have also felt, for it says that she’d seen many physicians, spent all she had, and still nothing helped. She may well have been victimized by unethical healers, we don’t know, but we do know she was alone and sick, for a long time, and nothing had helped, and so she sought out Jesus. She broke the rules and pushed her way into a crowd in which she was not welcome. And, the child, the daughter of Jairus, was also isolated due to her extraordinary illness, avoided by all but her family.
Further, both the woman and the girl were, by society’s standards, virtually powerless. The woman came alone, without a husband or male sponsor, which made her without honor or power in that first-century Mediterranean society. And the little girl was, though the daughter of Jairus, a male leader in the synagogue, a child and a female child (two strikes against her) and had virtually no power because of it. Both individuals knew what it was to be separated from society, both by illness and gender. And then there is this encounter with Jesus, which brings about healing and restoration.
Today’s gospel reading is not so much about Jesus being nice to two sick females by healing them, but more about Jesus extending life to a place where it hadn’t been. Jesus healed them, but he also restored them to life in community, a life from which both had been excluded.
I want to talk about two important words here, before we go any farther. Healed, which really means “Made whole,” and cured, which we use to mean “eliminating all traces of disease.” Hear the difference. There can be healing without a cure and curing without being healed, but the two together are powerful. Often, in our prayers, we ask for healing, when we may really hope for a cure. To be healed is something different. For example, a physician can treat someone with high blood pressure with a medication that controls hypertension, but until healing takes place, until one begins to control the high stress in day-to-day life, or live in a more healthful manner, that physician is unlikely to cure their high blood pressure. The pills are merely a band-aid. If someone has ovarian cancer, a surgeon can cut out the malignant cells and treat any remaining cells with chemo and/or radiation therapy, but most doctors recognize the value of healing, of being whole, of living a healthful life, of knowing and practicing what it means to be thoroughly alive and in relationship in the further process of being cured. By combining healing and curing, you have a very powerful outcome….but it’s important to know what is being asked for…a healing or a cure.
I read of a man in his fifties who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He and his wife prayed that he might be healed. Twenty years later, he was in the last and most debilitating stages of the disease and he told his pastor that his prayers had been answered. Looking at this gravely ill man, the pastor asked to hear more. The man said, with great sincerity, “I have been healed, not cured of the Parkinson’s disease, but I have been healed of my fear of Parkinson’s disease.” This man had been made whole due to his faith and understanding.
The account in this morning’s gospel in which people like you and me turn to Jesus for healing might lead us to ask, “Does prayer work?” If we mean, ”Do we get what we pray for?” the honest answer is “Not always.” So, it may be helpful to remember that prayers for healing are not simply utilitarian. That is, prayers for healing are not just a matter of bending God’s energy toward my will, my needs, and my hopes. Rather, when we ask something of God in our prayers, we enter a deeper relationship with God. God’s will may or may not be changed, but my mind and heart may be. Then, healing can take place.
Consider healing in what went on between the woman and Jesus and the little girl and Jesus. Much had to do with touch, an outward sign of intimacy and relationship. What happened between the woman and Jesus reveals the intimacy possible between two human beings who are socially very distant from one another. She was, after all, an ostracized woman, without a man, and he was a male, and a leader. And she broke the rules….you might say she practiced civil disobedience….she pushed her way through the crowd and deliberately touched him. Then, instead of calling her “Unclean,” Jesus named her “daughter”, a daughter every bit as precious as Jairus’ little girl, whom he was on his way to save. Instead of scolding her scandalous behavior, he praised the woman for her faith, named her as a member of his family and RESTORED HER TO COMMUNITY. Instead of what would have been justifiable anger, Jesus sent her off in peace. She was healed and she was restored to new life. And the little girl, a child, so sick she had died, responded when Jesus touched her, by taking her hand and telling her to “Get up!” His touch healed her, and his words called her back and restored her also to new life.
Healing comes from God working in the intimacy between two humans who may be socially very distant from each other. Touch brings wholeness, healing, and peace.
The power of intimacy and touch is well documented in science. Psychologists speculated for years about how children who were utterly cut off from human relationships might develop. These speculations were tested with a tragic ending in the 1980s in the numerous orphanages of Ceausescu’s Communist Romania after his fall from power. This dictator had mandated bizarre social policies that resulted in thousands of unwanted children. Many of them ended up in vast, underfunded state-run orphanages where they were completely isolated, often receiving no love, in fact, no human touch at all. Tragically, although the children grew into physically human adults, they did not become really human, for they could not speak nor relate to one another. They could not give nor receive affection.
We are shaped and made whole and fully human in our connections with one another. Our many relationships, be they friendly, work-related, or family, are not just for entertainment or something added on, as if we couldn’t be complete individuals on our own. In relationships, and with the element of “touch”, we are made human and whole and can be healed.
The Scottish philosopher, John Macmurray once stated, “I need ‘you’ in order to be myself.” I need you in order to be me. It is who we are as humans, loved by God….And, of course, I think of “Ubuntu!” a part of the Zulu phrase that says “a person is a person through other people.” Ubuntu has its roots in humanist African philosophy, where the notion of community is one of the building blocks of society. We are made to be in relationship.
So, in the Spirit of Ubuntu, in the knowledge of the power and importance of human contact, touch, and relationship, in the power and glory of our Lord Jesus who offers healing. . . go, then, and be “the other” for one another. Go and make others whole. Go and make the individuals and communities of which you are a part whole and healthy. And in so doing, give glory to God.