Sermon by Canon Treasurer Sarah Mullally DBE
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Three years ago I visited Zimbabwe as part of a team from the Diocese of Southwark. As part of the visit I went to a small clinic outside Gweru in central Zimbabwe. They were seeking to develop the clinic into a hospital and I went to help them with their project. While there I took the opportunity to talk about HIV/AIDS. You may know that Africa has struggled with HIV/AIDS and Zimbabwe is no different. 15% of the population of Zimbabwe suffer from HIV Aids; there are one million orphaned children because of HIV Aids; and the average life expectancy is 53 years. Amongst much of the population there is still a strong reluctance to access testing. People living with HIV face a particularly high level of discrimination in Zimbabwe, and many people fear that if they are found to be HIV-positive they will be victimised, and in places where there is little access to drug therapy some see testing as pointless.
The disease of HIV not only leads to ill health but also social exclusion and as a result for many it is difficult to worship. In this clinic run by the Diocese of Central Zimbabwe they had developed a very simple but powerful scheme. Mothers who gave birth to HIV-positive babies were offered treatment through UNICEF with drugs, and the mothers were offered the opportunity to cultivate land at the back of the clinic. This did three things: it gave them back their health through treatment and good food; it brought them into a community of fellow co-workers and gave them an income from the vegetables they sold; and it gave them a place to worship – the chapel on the site.
In a very difficult environment the clinic was offering the women and their children the hope of ‘life and life in all its fullness’.
Christ’s healing ministry throughout the gospels was more than just physical healing, it was about health, wholeness and restoring people into a relationship with God and one another as characterised by the verse John 10:10 ‘I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.’’
Today our definition of health is often very narrow and we talk about health being the absence of disease but we will know from our own experiences that it is more complicated than this. Health is better defined using the understanding of healing in the Old Testament, which uses the word ‘Shalom’ translated as completeness, wholeness, prosperity, well-being and peace. ‘Shalom’ is given by God and is something greater than humans can conceive; it weaves a community together and is discovered through relationships, through the supernatural but also through practical action. And here in our Gospel reading Jesus offers Shalom to a group he encounters.
Jesus is on his last journey to Jerusalem – it is a journey of transition. It is a journey where he has turned his face to his destiny, and along the road he takes the opportunity to define the type of Kingdom he was bringing in and the nature of faith. Along this journey he encounters ten lepers who were on the outside, the outside of society – there on the outskirts of the town. As lepers they would have been excluded from their families and friends and from employment, and they would not have been able to practise their faith because of their physical ill health, and they call out to Jesus to have mercy.
Here we see God intervening on behalf of those in need, those living on the social religious margins. And we see the healing of the ten through faith. In healing the ten, Jesus restores not just their health but also restores them to their families, their community, to the opportunity to move out of poverty and to the opportunity of a relationship with God. He heals deep-rooted rifts and it is no accident that Luke includes in his account that one of the lepers was a Samaritan, demonstrating the point made in the Dean’s sermon last week that healing is not only about the individual but also the healing of social systems.
Whilst in other parts of the gospels healing and being ‘saved’ come together, they don’t on this occasion. All ten were healed but it was only the Samaritan who on returning to give thanks, we are told, is saved – where to be saved is to have eternal life.
Jesus proclaimed the ‘Kingdom of God’ in both word and deed, and it is clear that he sent the disciples out to continue his healing ministry (Mark 6: 7-13, Matthew 10: 5-10 and Luke 9: 1-6): ‘As you go, proclaim the good news, “The Kingdom of Heaven has come near” Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons’ (Matthew 10: 6-7), and the book of Acts records how well they carried out this commission. This commission has meant that ministry of healing has been part of the Christian Church from the earliest time. It was the same Holy Spirit who had been given to Jesus to heal (Luke 5: 17) that had been given to the disciples in the early church to heal (1 Corinthians 12 :4-7) and that has enabled Jesus’ ministry of healing to continue down to the Church today.
In our ministry of prayer and healing today it is God who acts and offers shalom. Healing is about not just the physical but about reconciliation and restoration of relationship and of wholeness. It is a ministry where we need to understand what kind of healing and wholeness the person is seeking; it is a ministry where we need to be open to the different ways in which God works. And we need to be open to the possibility that God may use us as part of the answer to our prayer.
In talking about prayer Florence Nightingale wrote:
It did strike me as odd, sometimes, that we should pray to be delivered from ‘plague, pestilence and famine’ when all the common sewers ran into the Thames, and fevers haunted undrained land and the districts which cholera visited could be pointed out. I thought that cholera came that we might remove the causes, not pray that God would remove the cholera’.
If we believe that Jesus came to give life and life in all its fullness, then our ministry is not just about prayer but about action: the clinic in Zimbabwe offered prayer but it was also their actions which brought wholeness and inclusion – shalom. What does this mean for us in our community here?
I feel that we can’t talk about healing without recognising that prayers for healing are not always answered. If you were to ask me why, I would have to say I don’t know. What I do know is that if we look in the bible, not all prayers were answered. Moses asked to go into the promised land: he didn’t. King David spent weeks prostrate praying that his son should not die: he did. Jeremiah prayed that Jerusalem would not be destroyed: it was.
Christians, I believe, are called to believe in a God who saw his Son suffer and buried and to place our faith in a God who has yet to fulfil the promise that good will overcome evil, that God’s good purposes will, in the end, prevail. Our faith may fail but our Epistle reading reminds us that God is faithful.
Not everyone will find this answer sufficient. When we hurt, sometimes we want revenge. We want a more decisive answer. Frederick Buechner (American writer and theologian) said, "I am not the Almighty God, but if I were, maybe I would in mercy either heal the unutterable pain of the world or in mercy kick the world to pieces in its pain." God did neither. He sent Jesus. God joined our world in all its unutterable pain in order to set in motion Hope.
We are called to bring that hope to” Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons’ (Matthew 10:.6-7). Let us go and do likewise.