Rev. Dr. Paula Northwood
November 22, 2020, Thanksgiving Sunday
Scripture: Luke 17:11–19
Some of you know that I had a great-great-aunt who worked as a medical doctor in India in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She started a hospital that served mainly low-income women, which included girls and women affected by leprosy (Hansen’s disease). These women also faced the added issue of gender and social discrimination because of the disease. Unfortunately, this left many of them destitute and homeless. My great-great-aunt worked tirelessly to heal their suffering. My great-great-aunt also had the opportunity to meet Mahatma Gandhi.
Gandhi, as you know, walked barefoot most of the time, which produced an impressive set of calluses on his feet. He also ate very little, which made him rather frail, and, with his odd diet, he suffered from bad breath. This made him . . . a super-calloused fragile mystic vexed by halitosis. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that joke!)
The Gospels are full of stories about Jesus healing people. The healing stories represent some of the most moving images in scripture. Some scholars think that the stories about miraculous healing were used to convince the world that Jesus was the true Son of God, the Messiah. But if we understand a bit more about the context of these stories, we might think differently. People knew nothing of germs and genes. Many in Jesus’s day believed illness or disability of any kind was a result of God’s punishment for evil done by the person who was sick or even their parents. Jesus rejected that idea. He did embrace the Jewish notion of what we might call today the mind-body connection, viewing the body and soul as inseparable. The Greek verb sozo in Jesus’ day meant both “to save” and “to heal,” and so-ter meant both “savior” and “physician.”
Biblical scholars also think that the Roman military occupation of Palestine was so brutal that it created mass psychoses—mental disorders with physical symptoms like hysterical blindness and lameness—so Jesus was perhaps healing wounded minds and spirits. One might ask the question of whether the strain of the coronavirus, along with all that is happening in our political world, is causing some widespread psychoses, or at the very least anxiety and depression.
Another important difference between now and Jesus’ day is that people were not healed by taking pills or rarely surgery but by meeting with a healer, physician or shaman. Jesus seemed to have that reputation.
In our text, we have ten people with a serious disease. Because people with this illness were asked to quarantine, it also created social isolation and marginalization. They were suffering when they came upon Jesus. If we can, just for a moment, put ourselves in the sandals of the one of these lepers, what would we have done? Would we have asked to be healed? I think the search for healing is one of the most important spiritual journeys that we can take in our lives. That is why I think we have so many stories of healing in our sacred text.
We are all wounded in some way, are we not? It’s not so much about illness or injury but the deep emotional wounds that keep us from health and wholeness. Most of us have some hurt we can’t let go, some wound that never heals. For some, it is the pain of abuse. For others, it’s generations of inflicted pain and prejudice.
But often it is something small. It is often unkind words or unknowingly dismissive words or actions that hurt our feelings. And for some reason, we need to hang onto it. We tell the same stories of hurt over and over, trying to evoke sympathy and confirmation from others. We have suffered and we want people to know about it, to join us in judging others. It reminds me of a rather poignant story I once heard about a person carrying around a dead cat asking people to pet it. I think I have shared this story before. Our hurts, grudges and resentments are like a dead cat that we carry around in our arms and we ask people to pet. We want other people to see how we have been wronged. We are afraid our suffering will have been in vain if others don’t see it.
But no amount of petting the dead kitty will bring it back to life! We need to put the cat down and give it a proper burial. And it’s not that we won’t visit the graveside on occasion, but true forgiveness and freedom is found when we no longer dig up the cat. It seems to me that as individuals, or as a church or as a country, we need to put some things to rest.
It is unhealthy to define our existence by how we’ve been hurt or wronged. It only hardens our hearts and separates us from God. I don’t know what it is that you need to experience healing. Maybe it’s justice. Maybe it’s reparations. Maybe it’s just letting go.
Deep healing comes from the exchange of our hurts and resentments for the inner freedom that comes by softening and becoming vulnerable. Deep healing comes when we start to tell the truth. Deep healing comes when we are able to listen to the truth. Healing comes when we stop shouting at each other and start talking with each other in genuine dialogue.
Think what would happen if we could do this as a country. In our story, they were more than lepers: they were Samaritans; they were considered the “other.” What if the lepers represent the people we marginalize? A Native American needing housing. A young Black man needing respect. A transgender youth needing healthcare. An immigrant seeking asylum. A vet suffering from post-traumatic stress. A person with a disability needing access. An isolated elder needing a friend. A father needing child support. An addict needing treatment. An undocumented worker needing papers. A blue collar worker needing a decent wage.
These are the folks in our midst. Can we see the truth of their deeper story? Will we go on treating them the same way, or will this be the year we offer healing?
In our story, one of the men, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. Then Jesus said, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you whole.” Go on your way, your faith has made you whole!
We don’t have to go to special places to be made ritually clean, or sanctified, or born again. All the Samaritan had was Jesus, and Jesus tells the Samaritan that his own faith has made him whole.
His own faith, whatever it was. We don’t even know what he believed! Our own faith . . . as we understand it: Whoever we are . . . wherever we are . . . whatever we believe . . . imperfect, often broken, hurting, wounded, caught up in a net of our own dishonesties and resentments, yet still somehow capable of showing ourselves in soaring moments of honesty and authenticity; desiring to be loving and strong exactly as we were born to be . . . in order to heal our lives.
Yes, we are a wounded people. Yes, we are a divided and distraught country. And yes, we have the ability to heal, to speak the truth, to make things right, to go forward in faith.
On this Thanksgiving Sunday, with hearts full of gratitude, can we commit to making this next year a year of healing? As Henri Nouwen wrote, “Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’ When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”
As people of faith, we are wounded healers. We can take our own faith as we understand it—progressive, hopeful, spirit-filled, justice-seeking—and live authentically as we work to bring healing to this world and this planet. Yes, our own faith makes us whole despite who we are, still creatures of liminality, standing on the threshold ready to move across the limits of what we were . . . into what we are called to be: wounded healers in an aching world. The world needs us! And like the Samaritan, let’s remember to return and give thanks. Thanks be to God. Amen.