There is much which troubles me in this story; however, the ending is what is sticking with me this week, perhaps due to the events which have unfolded. One could come away from this reading with the impression that if we just nag Jesus enough, whatever we want will be done for us as we wish. And there are plenty of people who will tell you if “you just have enough faith” and “just pray harder” God will hear you and answer your prayers. There are even hints of this in scripture itself. It’s as if God is some kind of indifferent parental figure that needs to be harangued until he gives in to our desires or some kind of benevolent sugar daddy doling out favors capriciously. My life experience tells me this isn’t true and I suspect deep down you know it too.
This story brings up the issue of what it means to be healed. It is a difficult question in our time and place because we often confuse healing with cure. The strides in medical technology have led us to believe that we can cure anything. We often read into the biblical narrative that those who are healed are cured when that isn’t necessarily so. Cure is the reversal of illness or disease and restoration to a non-diseased state. If you get strep throat, it is caused by bacteria. If you take an antibiotic, it will kill the bacteria causing the infection and support your immune system to clear your body of the disease. For the record, antibiotics don’t cure the infection – they provide support to your immune system by killing enough of the bacteria that your body can finish the job of clearing out the infection. There are some illnesses for which a cure is possible.
But more often than not, we suffer from diseases and infirmities which cannot be cured: infirmities are of body, mind and spirit. Many of these are just conditions – they are what they are. These conditions and infirmities can be managed, perhaps, but not cured. We have been painfully reminded of this in the death of Robin Williams this week. Mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar, or schizophrenia, addictions to alcohol or drugs, chronic diseases such as Parkinson’s, dementia, COPD, diabetes, congestive heart failure, many forms of cancer are not things for which there are cures. Treatments exist to help manage these chronic conditions. These treatments can bring us with a quality of life. But to expect a reversal, a cure, of this kind of disease is as unrealistic today as it was in Jesus’ time.
Diseases of body, mind and spirit can and do claim the lives of people we love and sometimes this happens in what seems to be tragic and untimely ways. We seem to be able to accept when people die from physical illnesses. If someone dies of cancer, we don’t blame their deaths on not “trying hard enough,” do we? But we often struggle to understand when the cause is addiction, mental illness, or even the deep spiritual diseases of our human condition. I think deaths from spiritual disease are the hardest to talk about because these infirmities are so deep and often hidden from us. This week, we have watched violence explode in Ferguson, Missouri over the death of Mike Brown – a young black man who was unarmed and gunned down by a fearful police office. The spiritual disease of racism and fear runs so deep that we find it easier to couch this as police abuse or criminal behavior. But it is a disease of a spiritual nature. When young black men have to get “the talk” from their elders about how not to provoke the police, that is the spiritual disease of racism! When a trans or gay person dies at the hands of an angry mob, that’s the spiritual disease of heterosexism. Yes, it is criminal behavior in the taking of a life, but that is a symptom of deeper spiritual illnesses which only God knows whether or not they can be cured – but I do think they can be healed.
Chronic emotional illnesses are also places where we can hope for healing, but cure is impossible. Those who do not suffer from drug or alcohol addiction can quite wrongly stand in judgment of addicts and alcoholics and blame them for “taking that first drink” or “choosing to use.” These beliefs stem from a complete lack of understanding of how addiction binds our will and destroys our freedom – it impairs the ability to choose freedom. People who stand in that judgment seat are in denial of the fact they have their own addictions – even if only the addiction to self-righteousness. There is healing for addiction, but there is no cure.
For those who do not suffer from mental illness, we can fall into the mistaken idea that if those suffering would just “snap out of it,” “get on meds,” or “get some help,” they could be cured. This isn’t true either – there is no cure for mental illness. There is treatment and management, there is healing, but there is no cure. If there were a cure, our brother Robin Williams and our sister Sophia Schmidt would not have succumbed to death by suicide from end-stage mental illness.
If we look closely at this story, we hear in the end the woman’s daughter was healed … not cured. What that healing looked like is unknown to us. Perhaps she was cured … and maybe not. Maybe she received some relief from her torment or perhaps she received just enough grace to go on for one more day.
Healing is something we all need and we all seek. Every single one of us has something which cannot be cured – a dis-ease of body, mind or spirit. Healing is gift from God which brings a sense of serenity and wholeness in the face of what cannot be cured. I am persuaded that healing is something which happens in community – it does not happen in isolation. At our best, the Church is a conduit for the healing grace of God. It comes through our worship, the sacraments, how we are sacraments to each other by the giving of our very lives, and from the medical resources with whom we partner to address the physical and emotional components of infirmities. Faith plays a role in healing, to be sure, but God also wants us to avail ourselves of therapeutic treatments too. It’s not either/or … it is both/and.
This community of Grace has been a means God has used to bring healing to others. It doesn’t mean that those who come here are necessarily cured, but it does mean we are called to show the love and care of Christ to all who come through the door. It also means we run the risk of our hearts being broken. In my life, I have found this is a risk worth taking because only when my heart breaks can God’s grace flow in to heal me too.