A Place for Healing
Epiphany IV (O. T. 4); January 28, 2018
My friend told me of the voices that afflicted him. These were not the "voices in your head" that accompany certain psychological disorders, but voices of a different sort. He is a talented cook, an accomplished musician, and a loving friend. But the voices told him he was worthless, he had nothing to contribute to the world, and that God could not possibly love him.
When looking for hymns to accompany today's message, I found one that is explicitly based on our story from Luke, but which I decided not to use. The second verse says this:
Lord, the demons still are thriving in the gray cells of the mind:
Tyrant voices, shrill and driving, twisted thoughts that grip and bind,
Doubts that stir the heart to panic, fears distorting reason's sight,
Guilt that makes our loving frantic, dreams that cloud the soul with fright.
Whether you believe there are demons lurking about us, as suggested by our traditional mythology and a lot of modern movies, the demonic certainly crawls through many minds. When God invites you to meet a challenge, a voice tells you that you can't do it. When the preacher tells you God loves you, a voice says that no, God may love everyone else, but not you. When Jesus says, "Follow me," the voice says that you're not good enough.
Or the voices may be even more demonic. You are married to an alcoholic and the voice tells you that it is simply your lot in life to enable someone else. Someone abuses you and the voice tells you that you deserve no better. Or something about you is different, your family or your acquaintances or even your church tell you that you are bad, and you believe them.
My friend told me of the voices. Then he knelt, I laid my hands on his head and prayed for him. And I commanded, in the name of Jesus, the demons to depart. Nothing strange or obvious happened. Nothing flew out of his mouth nor did he say anything odd. But he felt better. Over time – not suddenly, but gradually – his self-confidence grew. No, there is no power in these hands. But there is power in the name of Jesus.
I don't know what all to say in the conversation about healing and faith and miracles. There is a chapel in Chimayó, New Mexico where people go for healing. They believe the dust from the ground there has healing properties, like the water at Lourdes. And people scoop up a bit of the dust and pray to be healed. On the walls of the chapel are crutches and braces and many other signs that people have left to mark how they have been healed. You may have your own story of healing. A lady in my church had tests; there were spots on her lung. We prayed for her; when she went back for a follow-up, the spots were gone.
Yet… I had a colleague in ministry who had a brain tumor. He had surgery and all the appropriate therapy. And my college roommate, Chuck, a Baptist minister with an amazing wit (he used to write a humor piece for The Wittenburg Door, "Pastor Carl's Rookie Year") and a deeply loving spirit. The same day that my colleague had a test that showed his tumor was gone my friend Chuck died of his. Why was one healed and the other was not?
Or is that the wrong question? Sometimes death is a sort of healing, especially for us who believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. When I pray for someone to be healed I don't dictate to God the terms of what that healing should look like.
Usually the path to healing is through pain. Any of you who have had surgery to repair a problem know that. Any of you who have been through psychotherapy know that. Any who have dealt with an addiction know that. If we make the choice to be healed, we are also making the choice to go through whatever pain or discomfort that entails. It can take a lot of courage to make that choice. It certainly takes discipline and a strong faith that you can be healed. Jesus once happened by a sick man and asked him, "Do you want to be well?" It seems that he did, but he made excuses for why he hadn't done what was necessary. Jesus healed him anyway (John 5:2-9). I suppose he wanted to be healed. I hope he wanted to be healed. If you have screwed up your courage and gone to AA, or to psychotherapy, or to chemotherapy, or had surgery, or gone to Weight Watchers, then you have made the choice to be healed. I have learned that in order to be well my desire to be well has to overcome my fear or my excuses or my temptations. It takes courage and discipline and faith to be healed.
But we also know that the pain is eased and the healing is helped by the presence of a healing community. Some people manage to kick their addiction to alcohol without help, but most are aided by the presence of other recovering alcoholics. When you are with people who empathize with you, who understand what you are struggling with, then you are more likely to find healing on your journey. People who are grieving are helped along the road to healing best by the company of others who grieve. Sometimes we need a professional – a support group is not going to do knee replacement surgery – but even then the healing is helped by the presence of a community of empathy and encouragement.
My friend was healed of the demons that haunted his mind not only because I prayed for him but also because he was part of a church that loved him. His church appreciated him and his church cared about him. And in his church he was able to sing the hymns of the power of God and hear the Scriptures about the love of God. Nobody knew what he was struggling with but me and another man who was his best friend, but his church helped him simply by being the church. They came together every Sunday in the name of Jesus; they followed the tried-and-true Presbyterian liturgy which is designed to heal the spirit; and they had an honest life together that included laughter, mission, and mutual love.
Of course they weren't perfect. They also found ways to be mean; they wounded their pastors; many of them indulged in hateful gossip. Don't for a minute think that you are perfect, either. But you have this going for you, as they did: you are the Church of Jesus Christ. Christ is here; Christ is Lord; Christ is Savior. We are and we can be a place for healing when our life together is focused on the powerful, healing name of Jesus Christ.
Okay, before wrapping it up, let me lay out specifically some of what that looks like. I'll go back to three words I used earlier in the sermon: courage, discipline, and faith.
"Courage." A healing community is a community of encouragement, a community that helps each other have courage. Nagging and scolding do not characterize a healing community; encouragement does. "You can do it." "God will show us a way." "God is leading us." These are the sorts of phrases that you hear in a place for healing.
"Discipline." I'm going to riff on this a bit. There are two sides to the matter of discipline: the self-discipline of the individual and the discipline of the community. I belong to the support community that I do because we realize that recovery from the problems that lead to overeating is not a once-and-done thing but is a lifestyle that has to be maintained and continued, well, for the rest of our lives. I've been a member for fifteen years and I continue to go to a meeting every Saturday morning. Now, yesterday I wasn't feeling it. I didn't want to be there and the success stories folks told were annoying me. But I was there; I want to be well. Likewise, there was a long period in my life when I didn't want to go to church. I was young, but there have been times like it since then. During that period of my life I would listen to the minister's sermon and get angry; I sang the hymns even though I didn't believe the words. But I was there and I participated and eventually I got better.
Likewise, the Church needs to be a community of discipline. Rather than worship that follows the whim of the week, our worship needs to be disciplined around the Word of God and the life and witness of Jesus. Our caregiving as a community needs to be disciplined, so let me tell you about one example, Stephen Ministry; it is not the only form of consistent congregational caregiving but one I happen to know. Part of what makes it so good is the caregivers are supervised and their care is ongoing. When you have a crisis you might get a call or a visit or a note from a pastor; perhaps people will continue to give you attention for a bit. But our lives go on and our attention goes on to the next thing. A Stephen Minister will stick with you until you decide you don't need that focused support. For the Church to be a place for healing requires a disciplined life: worship on the Lord's Day, regular prayer, study of the Bible, and mutual care.
"Faith." Because there is so much to be said, let's say only this: our faith is in the God who is known through Jesus Christ. Faith has content; it is not random and unfocused. When our worship, our prayer, our fellowship, our evangelism… when the focus of our life together is the God made known to us in Jesus Christ then we are a place for healing.
I know this from my own experience. Although the Church has wounded me deeply, the Church has also been a place for healing for me. People in the Church have encouraged me; I have been nurtured by the discipline of the Church's worship and prayer, and the Church has shown me faith in the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. The people of Capernaum were amazed; they said of Jesus, "With authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!" Jesus still drives out the unclean spirits wherever he creates in his Church a place for healing.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
 "Silence! Frenzied, Unclean Spirit" by Thomas H. Troeger, 1984; #181 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (2013).