The Fifth Sunday in Lent + Healing Sunday
Sermon given at St. Thomas Episcopal Church + Menasha, WI
About 46 years ago, I was baptized, my Episcopal priest father scooping the water over my head with his hand, and my parents and godparents promising on my behalf to renounce Satan and all his works, to turn to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and to see that I was brought up in the Christian faith and life.
About 35 years ago, I was confirmed, renewing that commitment to Jesus Christ and promising (with God’s grace) to follow him as my Savior and Lord. My godfather, Bishop Folwell, laid his hands on my head and prayed that the Holy Spirit would empower me for God’s service.
About 25 years ago, Katrin and I married each other, joining hands, and promising to “have and to hold, from this day forth, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live.”
A couple months after that, a high school friend of Katrin’s invited me to attend a John Guest evangelistic crusade in Chicago. Seriously? An evangelistic crusade? People waving their hands in the air? As the altar call began, my skeptical self was confronted by a vision of Jesus in person. That night, I accepted Jesus as my Savior and made a mature commitment to follow him as my Lord.
About 18 years ago, Bishop Frank Griswold laid his hands on my head and made me a deacon in God’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. I promised not only to be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church; but more importantly “to make Christ and his redemptive love known to those among whom I live, and work, and worship.”
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We make promises before we fully understand what they will mean for us and for our lives. We vow to follow, and then we find out where we’re going.
Our namesake Thomas exemplifies this pattern. Things are coming to a head between Jesus and the religious authorities, and they could expect trouble in the days ahead.
“Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him’” (John 11:14-16).
We make promises in time, without fully understanding them, and it’s only over time that we come to appreciate how they will impact our futures.
But underneath these promises, in all our lives, in all of the details of what we promise and who we share our lives with, underneath it all is the presence and the power of God continually working for our health and our salvation.
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A little more than 5 months ago, head in my hands, I admitted that I was powerless over alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable, and I made a decision to turn my life and my will over to the care of God as I understand Him.
Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones is such an accurate picture of those moments.
“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord GOD, you know’” (Ezekiel 37:1-3).
When we admit we are powerless, time stops, and in the present moment we see how broken and dry and dead we have become. It’s only through that awareness that we begin to rely on God entirely. “Can these bones live? O Lord God, you know.” The meetings I now go to, the 12 Steps I now follow like millions before me are about learning to live a sober life, sober meaning “dependent on God and free from self-centeredness, fear, anger, and resentment.”
As our Gospel lesson continues (John 11:21-27), Jesus is almost to Bethany, and there is Martha – brimming with anger, seething with resentment: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” What she really means is, “if you had been here, I wouldn’t be in pain right now.”
Her faith tries to reassert itself: “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha says to him – focusing back on her pain, her frustration – that’s no help to me, but sure, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus looks her straight in the eyes – no hiding – and says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
She blinks, realizing as she looks back at him that her trust is stronger than her grief, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Martha trusts Jesus, and even knows him to be the Messiah, but she actually has no idea the breadth of his power or the depth of his love for her, for Mary, and for their brother, for his brother Lazarus.
What is happening here is that, faced with our grief and frustration, faced with our anger and resentment, faced with our fear of death, God’s heart breaks.
“God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart” (John 1:18), stands with us and weeps.
When God’s eternal Spirit, blowing through all creation, touches the tears on Jesus’s cheeks, even death is no match – even graves spring open.
Underneath our helplessness, underneath our fear and resentment, in all of the details of how we have failed ourselves and those we love, underneath even our own death is the presence and the power of God continually working for our health and our salvation.
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Until he died about 10 years ago, there was never a time in my life when my father did not pray for me. I can still hear his voice and feel his hand on my forehead:
Rodger, I lay my hands upon you and anoint you with oil, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; beseeching our Lord Jesus Christ, that all your pain and sickness of body being put to flight, the blessing of health may be restored to you and you may enjoy that victory of life and peace which will enable you to serve him now and always. Amen.
Woven throughout my life, woven into the fabric of the promises I have made to God and the admission of my failures, is another pattern of healing prayers being offered on my behalf.
One of my first conscious memories of healing prayers other than my father’s is from about 30 years ago on my first Happening – Happening number 12 in the Diocese of Albany. I loved the singing, but I was rapidly losing my voice. I asked the Spiritual Director to pray for me at the healing service, and it felt like there was soothing honey pouring down my throat – for the rest of the weekend I could sing freely and loudly, even hitting the high notes in “I am the bread of life.” Thirty years later, and I’m still singing at Happenings – this last one was Happening number 67 in the Diocese of Fond du Lac.
Here at St. Thomas, I know myself to be surrounded by healing prayer, whether it’s in the chapel after the Eucharist, or here at the rail during a healing service, or at birthday and anniversary prayers during the Peace, or through special prayers for healing after my foot surgery. Your healing ministry also took the form of an invitation – since I have been home more often these last few months – to join the Thursday morning men’s Bible study group.
We ask for healing – we accept God’s invitation to health – before we fully understand what it will mean, before we fully grasp what wholeness may free us to do.
We admit our vulnerability, and find that, paradoxically, our weakness and honesty helps to strengthen others.
We are healed in eternity – because in praying for healing we are made open to God’s eternal love for all of creation. Like with Lazarus, even death cannot stop God’s love.
Underneath these healing prayers, in all our lives, in all of the details of our sickness and pain, in all the frustration of our limitations, in the loneliness and separation we feel, in all the push and pull of our relationships, underneath it all is the presence and the power of God continually working for our health and our salvation.
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If you desire to know the presence and the power of God in your life more fully, I will invite you in a moment to come forward and ask a member of the healing team to pray for you.
Who knows what that healing will mean for you, who knows where it will take you, who knows what it may set you free to do with and for others?
If you’d like to know “that victory of life and peace which will enable you to serve God now and always,” I invite you to come forward now and ask.