Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Capernaeum II: the Leper and the Paralytic

One of the most powerful charisms of the Spirit that I have seen active in the Church during my time as one of the set-apart (not above) members of the ordained has been the gift of healing. Some have been given this gift/skill as a powerful sign and witness of God loving creation in a very particular and immediate way. Some have been given healing in order that they be a sign and a living testament to the life and love God intends for us here and now. Both experiences, I have seen, generate a witness to all that God is both intending and achieving in us and through the Church. First, some personal testimony in what I have seen happen and what I have seen God achieve through me, then some time reflecting on how the stiff-necked of Capernaeum epitomize our own struggles with doubt and outrage as they react to Jesus healing, restoring, cleansing and making whole the broken who are brought to him as he teaches "in his own back yard."

As to personal testimony, I would start with telling the tale of a former parishioner from my very first call out of seminary. I was an associate serving under a rector in a campus-sited parish located in Columbus, Ohio. This parish is both liberal and passionate in its commitment to a lively, social and rationally vivid life in Christ. Not that they lack faith...far from it. It is just that they are as committed to the life of the mind as they are to the Spirit. In other words, this is not a parish in which you would see someone speaking in tongues, or someone offering the gift of prophecy. Still, in that place, I had my first experience of the charism of healing. One of the parishioners is a former mayor of a city in Wisconsin, and during his time in that Northern state, he developed a very serious form of cancer. In the midst of treatment, he had a powerful experience of the presence of God in Christ one night...and the next body scan he had in preparation for treatment showed no sign whatsoever of his cancer. He was clean, whole. Still, he carries the scars of his treatments to that point, both from his repetitive surgeries...but also side-effects from the chemotherapy. His thoughts on that? Healing came to him in God's time, and not on the schedule he had set in his own imagination, but it did come. For that, he gives thanks-because it gives him the opportunity to live as a witness to God's grace. He lives a life committed now to the Gospel, and I learned that the rational, academic life I was born to as a "baby priest" was only preparation for what God had in mind for me and for the people I was to serve as priest.

Another event, more recent and more personal, involves another parishioner. She was a volunteer in a parish I served as rector, and one day we found each other in the Church's sacristy. She was doing the flowers for Sunday's worship, and I was getting some service records from the main register. As I passed through, she didn't look happy...so I asked her what was wrong. She noted that for the past few days she had been fighting a headache, one that was inhibiting her ability to be present to her work and her family. Out of no where...or perhaps from somewhere deep inside...I found myself offering to lay hands on her. This was not a "usual" thing for me to offer. Far from it, and in a climate where the Church counsels safe boundaries between clergy and lay it doesn't too often even come to mind as an option. Still, the request was there between us, and she assented. I said a prayer, produced some oil from the sacristy cabinet, anointed her and then went on my way. A couple of days later she rushed up to me...I wouldn't believe it, she said, but when I lifted my hands from her head the pain vanished. It was gone so fast that it took her some time to recognize that it was gone. That sign gave her a gift of knowing that healing was both possible and in some instances immediate. For me, I was reminded that I really am just a vessel and conduit of the gifts God intends for the Church and the world.

From cancer to a simple headache...and from far more instances than I have time to recount here and now, I have seen healing take place when the name of Jesus is invoked.

So, why is it so difficult for the people who knew Jesus best-who should have seen the gifts in him and around him-to accept that lepers and paralytics should receive healing from his hands and the sound of his voice? Because, I believe, that Jesus' actions amongst his neighbors do something that too often plagues the leaders of the Church-he exceeded his "mandate" as a teacher. Sure, they could accept his preaching skills. They might brace a bit on his choice of words or images...but that this new, aspiring rabbi should suddenly be proclaiming and effecting a ministry of healing and the forgiveness of sins? That excess is unsettling, to say the least.

Even with the blessing of seeing their companions receive healing, there is a sense of upset. What Jesus' actions create is an imbalance in the world view of the community. What could be predicted, what was routine was being upset. If a leper could be cleansed, a paralytic's limbs be made "quick"...if a man plagued by spirits could be released, then what meaning does life have for me-who has seen these things all my life as insurmountable barriers that separate the whole from the broken, the clean from the unclean. How dare he do this...this....thing!

Would that human beings be able to simply accept and celebrate the witness that such works of the Spirit create in our lives, but the truth is that we too often prefer to dwell in our own refuse rather than admit we are dirty. That is true of all of us, no matter what level of success we achieve in life. The world could be caving in around us, but if that collapse becomes routine-well, then it becomes something we live with-and woe to the soul who dares tell us we stink.

Jesus doesn't do that, mind you. He isn't going around pointing out how the righteous Pharisee or the pious Sadducee is failing to help his/her fellow human in distress. What he is doing is spending time with, and apparently enjoying the company of those whose disfigurement has isolated them from "normal" society.

The sick are healed. The lepers cleansed. The paralytic not only experiences strength in his limbs but also gets up from his mat with his sins forgiven. That is all good news. That the teacher is willing to take his good news to everyone, including the outcasts, tax collectors and sinners is a powerful testimony that the Holy is drawing near....

But it is also disruptive to the agendas and routines of the every-day faithful who are quite surprised to see and suddenly feel marginalized. They are not quite as much at the center of society as they had previously assumed.

Churches face this challenge all the time and it is how we choose to respond to the presence of the outcasts of society that will define us as members of the Body of Christ. Jesus himself welcomed all, taught anyone who chose to approach and would break bread with even the most notorious of sinners. Can we do any less?

But if that is our mandate, then how do we take that teaching into the world, a world that is predicated on the ways human beings have of creating separation and distinction between those who are acceptable, and those who are less than desirable.

I know that many clubs have membership committees. The role and function of these committees is to evaluate those seeking membership in the group. Do the applicants "measure up" to the criteria of the organization? Are they seen as an "asset" to the community? Or, do they not quite fit in...do they seem to lack the resources to make valid contributions?

Thing is, no church in my opinion has any business acting like a club. If Jesus did not distinguish between the clean and unclean, between the whole and the broken, could we do any less?

Capernaeum and its people had to be a hostile environment, not because the residents were particularly evil, bad or wrong. Far from it...they were good, honest (for the most part) people who were focused on living their lives in as righteous a manner as the Torah would dictate. But, suddenly in their midst is one who seems be telling them that they might not have it all figured out...and that it might be time for them to begin a radical re-visioning of who, what and how they see themselves.

That can't be a particularly welcome thing, especially from a person who only a few months ago was just another "young man" whose family was well-known in these parts.

We have a lot to learn from these good people of Capernaeum, who had no small amount of trouble as they struggled to understand what Jesus was doing and who he was turning out to be-and what was now being asked of them as they professed faithful, righteous adherence to their faith.

Change is coming. Change in the world around us, and most unsettling, change in ourselves.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your post. Google Alerts brought me to your blog as I am set up to receive alerts whenever/wherever someone blogs about the gift of healing. I am inspired by your reflections on how Christ was perceived...interesting.

    May that gift of healing grow in you and may God more richly use you in His service...to bring a testimony to the power that God reserves for Himself...when He chooses to use some of us for his vessel.

    I'm utterly awed that He uses me in this same way. Worthy? No. Willing....? Yes. It's ALL about Him.