“Reflections on Healing” a reading for 6 voices, then…
With Prince Harry and Meghan Markle so much in the news lately, many people’s memories are stretching back to the early days of Princess’ Diana’s life with the Royal Family. When Harry announced that he wanted to spend more time doing charity work, especially related to HIV and AIDS, that shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Do you remember the famous picture of Diana shaking the hand of an AIDS patient in a London hospital? In 1987 it hit the front page of newspapers all over the world – the first instance anyone could remember of a public figure touching a person diagnosed with AIDS. It was the midst of the panic surrounding the disease in the 1980s. The saddest reality for AIDS patients in those days, and still in many places today, is that the physical disease of AIDS was compounded by the illness of social isolation, as misinformation spread faster than the virus itself. Some fundamentalist preachers claimed it was a judgment from God on America as a whole and on gay people in particular. You can still hear that hateful nonsense being spouted by televangelists and Bible-thumping preachers today, and it still has the power to do enormous harm.
Contrast the act of Princess Diana, and the story about Jesus today, with those judgements. At first it seems as if Jesus is angry with this poor, bleeding woman for touching him without permission; but as the story progresses we realize that he wants not only her disease to be cured, but her isolation from the community ended, too. By asking her to stand up and speak, then publicly declaring her healed, he is returning her to the community from which she was banned – considered impure because of the constant flow of blood she suffered. Imagine the joy the first time she got a hug from a loved one after her healing, the first time a neighbour woman patted her shoulder or a grandchild climbed into her lap. All of that was a gift from Jesus. He let the community know that she was welcome among them, just as Diana influenced many to reach out for the first time and treat those with HIV/AIDS as they would any other person with a life-threatening illness: with compassion and care.
Compassion, Jesus shows us, brings people from the fringes of the community to the centre of life. For Jesus, even the isolation of death itself is no barrier: Jairus’ young daughter is brought back to her family, and to her community, and the potentially soul-destroying pain of losing a child becomes a celebration for everyone who knows and loves this family.
There are many times that I wish I, like Jesus, could heal grave illness and pain. When I sit by the bed of a congregant with cancer, or speak with an elderly mother whose child is dying, or listen to the story of a victim of child abuse, I wish I could reach a hand out, or say a word, like Jesus, and heal their lives and their hurt. I can’t do those things. I don’t have the power, and sometimes, I can’t even find the words. But what I can do – and what you can do too – is break down the isolation that so often comes with the experience of illness, physical or mental challenges, social barriers, addiction…you know those things that tend to push people to the edges of the community – that leave people sitting on the curb or locked in their apartments or stuck in a hospital room or alone in the rain on a dark night.
Diana reached out a hand and began to change the world. A member of our congregation invites street kids for a sandwich and a talk. Our pastoral care team calls and visits people who can’t make it out to church or who are having troubles in their lives. Some of you serve at the community dinner and know every guest’s name and what’s going on in their lives. I remember Ilene Busby, an elder in our congregation, used to spend hours on the phone with various members and former members of the congregation. She kept them connected – even those who had deliberately cut themselves off from congregational life. Some of you here are advocates for those with dementia, making sure there is a space for these friends in our church and our community, and others clear the sidewalks and run the stairlift so that those with physical challenges can still make it into the church building. We can advocate for better access to services for those who use wheelchairs, walkers, scooters or canes; we can remind our bank tellers and cashiers and barristas and even our medical personnel to be patient with those who need some more time and maybe a little more help to get things done. We can ask our friends about their addicted family members, and not pretend they don’t exist. We can call people on their inappropriate or hurtful comments and assumptions and let the people affected know that we don’t share those views – that we welcome their company.
The communion table in the United Church of Canada has increasingly become a symbol of Jesus’ inclusive spirit. There are churches which, out of respect for the sacrament, insist that only those who have confessed their sins and who are in good standing with their church can participate in communion. While I understand their position, I heartily disagree with it. There is no way that the Jesus we see in Scripture would exclude anyone from a meal he was hosting. The famous phrase the religious leaders used to criticize him was “He eats with sinners and tax collectors”; he reclines at a table with people that other people don’t want to be around.
I’m imagining a party where Jesus and this young girl and her mother and father, and the mourners who were out of a job, and the woman who was healed of her bleeding, and the man from the cemetery in last week’s story, and the disbelieving disciples, and yes, even the religious leaders and maybe a couple of Roman soldiers, all sit down and pass around the birthday cake and the Kool-Aid. The IV drug user, the unmedicated schizophrenic, the guy who makes his living picking bottles from the trash, the cancer patient, the HIV positive teen, the elderly woman who doesn’t remember where she is but knows she’s in a safe place, the grieving mother and the child abuse survivor – they’re all there. That’s communion. That’s a party Jesus would host – and if he had to go into the highways and byways to find those people, he’d do it.
So what about us? Do you feel like you’re on the outside looking in? Are you brave enough, like the woman with the hemorrhage and Jairus the father, to ask for what you need – to step into the circle and be recognized so that others may respond? And for those of us who feel like we might be quite comfortable on the inside, thanks for asking – how are we reaching out to include others? As we approach the table of Christ, and are fed and nurtured by his generous spirit, may his spirit become OURs. Amen.