July 8, 2012
As our nation continues to discuss the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, as we wait to see what will happen next—and as we begin to get a better sense of what it will mean for the health of our country: allowing people with pre-existing conditions to purchase insurance, allowing young adults to continue on their parents’ policies, eliminating the lifetime maximums on insurance payments—the word came this past week that so far ten governors have said that they will refuse Medicaid expansion money from the federal government to help pay for insurance for low-income people. Our own Governor Branstad has said that he will reject some 2.8 billion dollars in federal funds, possibly denying coverage of nearly 115,000 Iowans.
The Affordable Care Act would provide 100% funding for Medicaid expansion during the first three years and 90% of the funding for the next five years.
Now, I recognize that our congregation never has one opinion on any topic—so I know that there are, no doubt, many responses to this news.
Mine? I’m outraged—but not surprised.
I read this news as I was reflecting on that long story from the Gospel of Mark that we heard this morning. Jesus is called to heal a young girl. On his way, he is interrupted and heals an elderly woman. And then he brings that girl back to life.
What do we make of this? “Health care” in the Bible often seems both so straight-forwardly simple and so distant from and unlike our contemporary situation.
People are always giving me suggestions about subjects for my sermons. Some just tell me outright about what I should preach.
I once sat in a hospital waiting room with a member of the church I was then serving while her husband underwent heart bypass surgery. As we sat and talked, this woman said to me: “We just don’t take care of ourselves, Bill. We’ve got to take better care of ourselves.” Then, as if struck with a sudden moment of inspiration she told me in no uncertain terms: “That’s what you’ve got to preach about!”
She was right. We do need to take better care of ourselves.
But I don’t preach much about taking care of ourselves—in part because I’m aware of how much I don’t take care of myself.
I don’t exercise enough.
I don’t eat right—too many donut holes, not enough fruits and vegetables.
I don’t get enough sleep.
I often live with too much stress.
In short I am all too aware of the broken places in my own life that seek wholeness—and of the ways in which I get in the way of that healing. I’m well aware that a sermon titled “Take Care” should probably be subtitled ‘Do as I say, not as I do.”
So that this doesn’t become simply a time for me to catalogue my own faults, however, let me add that you probably don’t take care of yourself very well either.
Do you drive too fast—or without your seatbelt?
Do you drink too much—or smoke at all?
And what’s the donut hole to exercise ratio in your life?
I know. Maybe you're one of our many members who are fit and trim, in good shape, a model for the rest of us. Even so, maybe you will agree that not taking care of ourselves seems to be part of the human condition. It's a common human problem. It results in all manner of illnesses that use our health care dollars.
If our common confession can be that we don’t take care of ourselves, perhaps you can hear these words as one broken person to another.
The other reason I’m hesitant to preach about taking care of ourselves is because the emphasis on individual responsibility—as important as that is—often obscures other factors affecting our health: accidents happen even to those who are the most fit; disease is not always fended off by even the best diet and exercise plan. And we also miss the equally important concern for the well-being of all citizens of this nation—the rich and the poor, those who are sick and those who are healthy.
In some way, this is connected to those stories of healing that we come across in scripture. In these stories we encounter people facing problems similar to those that many face today—including pre-existing conditions and a depletion of resources.
The two accounts of healing that we heard from the Gospel of Mark this morning push us to think again about healing and health—as well as how and why we might take care.
Illness leads to prayer. And there is often something desperate about our prayers for healing.
Some studies indicate that, as the title of one book puts it: Prayer Is Good Medicine. That is, people who are prayed for seem to recover from illness or surgery faster and need less pain medication.
Most of the members of the church I served in Connecticut went to Middlesex Hospital when they needed to be hospitalized. Middlesex Hospital may be the only hospital in the nation in which pastoral visits are recorded on the patient’s medical charts. Although the hospital is not connected with any religious organization, the hospital administrators recognize that care of the spirit seems to be connected to care of the body. When I would visit a church member at Middlesex Hospital I would fill out a sticker to note that visit and whether or not we prayed. If prayer is medicine, the people at Middlesex Hospital wanted to know when it was dispensed.
Prayer is good medicine, and yet we know that our prayers are often spoken as much out of desperation as faith.
The doctor tells you about a spot on your X-ray. "O God."
Your child is ill. "O God."
Someone you love is dying. "O God."
Look at Jairus—he’s a religious leader; he’s powerful in his community; he has resources at his command; and he is a desperate man because his daughter is critically ill. Jesus, the healer, is in the region. So Jairus runs up, throws himself at Jesus' feet.
Listen to him. He begs. He pleads. “Come.” “Save.”
And Jesus goes with him.
And the crowd goes with Jesus—eager to see what will happen.
Extreme circumstances drive us to prayer. The words may not be well formed, but they arise from deep within us. They are genuine.
And we wait to see what will happen.
A woman comes to Jesus—but not directly. At one time, at least, she had some money. But now, we hear, it has all been spent seeking a cure for a hemorrhage that will not stop. Her illness has put her outside of the religious community—and perhaps also outside of the respectable human community. Unlike Jairus, the powerful religious leader, she doesn’t even have a name.
But this woman is not one who heeds the advice in Lamentations that “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” She has long sought salvation-—wholeness, healing—through the medical community. Now out of desperation, or if we accept the witness of Mark, out of deep faith, this woman turns to a new healer in the midst of the people.
She has heard reports about this Jesus. She thinks to herself: “If I can only touch his garment, I will be cured.” And indeed, we hear that in touching just the hem of Jesus' garment she is healed.
When Jesus’ healing power brought the miracle of health to this woman, he immediately sought her out to speak with her about her experience. Impressed by the power of her faith, Jesus announces: “Your faith has made you well.” To this Jesus adds a standard Jewish blessing—“Go in peace.”
But then he couples that blessing with a common Greek blessing: “Be healed of your disease.” A more colloquial rendering of this phrase could be “Take care of yourself so that you remain healthy.” He is urging her to stay healthy, to be whole.
The blessing and the challenge come to each of us. Stay whole. Keep yourself healthy. Take care of yourself.
What does wholeness mean?
Wholeness means that we have body and mind and soul in sync. Wholeness means recognizing that our spiritual needs are as important as our physical needs. Wholeness means that our emotional needs are as important as our intellectual needs. The woman who encountered Jesus felt the healing in her body and she also recognized it mentally. She was emotionally overcome with “fear and trembling” and her entire spirit resonated with the need to declare “the whole truth” to Jesus. Healing reached into every part of her being.
On his way to heal another, Jesus encounters a faith that does not wait to see what happens, a faith that does not plead, a faith that simply acts.
Jesus is interrupted by an active, healing faith.
The people, walking along with him, waiting to see what will happen, listen as Jairus receives a message: “Your daughter is dead; why trouble the teacher any more?”
Isn’t this the mystery of our prayers for healing, our cries for health? Some seem to be answered. The surgery is a success. The cancer goes into remission. I’ve seen it happen often enough. Prayer does make a difference.
Still, I know of times when the surgery didn’t go as planned—as you probably do also. And in spite of quality medical care, in spite of a positive mental attitude, in spite of good programs of self-care, some—many—do not get well. Voices—including our own—ask if there is any connection between faith and prayer and health.
When it looked like Jesus might make a difference the crowd was willing to follow him. When he arrives at the home of Jairus, the people gathered there only laugh at him.
They laugh because there in the face of death, Jesus suggests that death is not as strong as it looks.
Listen as Jesus says to a lifeless twelve year old girl: “Get up.” And she gets up and walks.
Who dares to say that God works like this?
And who is bold enough to say that God does not work like this?
The fact that it is far more difficult for us to accept the resurrection of a dead person than for Mark’s contemporaries opens our eyes to the message of this story.
Certainly we are not to think that this girl only appeared to be dead. Miracles such as raising people from the dead were often attributed to Greek wonder-workers and even authenticated by physicians. This story probably presented no special intellectual problems to those who first heard it. And so they were able to focus their attention on the faith that believes that nothing is impossible for God—not even victory over death.
Our situation is so different that our attention focuses on the miracle itself—and whether or not we believe it is true. But the real miracle in this story is the emergence of faith that believes God is able to triumph over death. And so we are brought from this story to the hour of our own death, when we might expect no “miracle,” but when we do, in faith, expect the continuing presence of the living God who is stronger than death.
We’ve got to take care of ourselves. Taking care of ourselves involves more than eating right and exercise—although those are good places to start. The challenge to take care of ourselves invites us to consider our whole being—body, mind, and spirit—as we live in the presence of God whose care for us never ends.
And this brings me back to my initial concern—the ongoing struggle to provide health care for all people in the United States. We need to take care of ourselves—and we need to take care that all have the care they need. Like the woman who dared to approach Jesus, we should not wait to see what happens, but take the action need so that health care is available to all. We are called to move beyond politics and posturing so that in our nation no one needs to fear loosing insurance and endangering their health.
We are called to act out of our faith that God desires the well-being of all people and work to extend care to all.