What about prayer and healing?
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In the first two weeks of this sermon series we have looked at Centring Prayer and at the Prayer of Examen. Today we are taking a bit of a turn in order to talk about something that is a part of every person’s life—that is the connection between prayer and healing.
Before we go any further though let’s spend some time in prayer. I think continuing to practice the Centring Prayer is a good idea.
- Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. I would suggest you place your hands in your lap, palms up, symbolizing an openness to receiving what God wants to say to you. Silently say your holy word or phrase. Say it as many times as you need in order to quiet that “monkey mind” of yours.
- Whenever you find your mind wandering to your to do list or calendar or the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting, return to your holy word.
- When the timer rings or buzzes, don’t respond immediately; remain in silence with your eyes closed for a minute or two.
I have a story for you and a question. When I was attending university in Waterloo I went to church with friends who were Mennonites. They were wonderful, generous, godly people who except for the fact that the whole congregation sang in four-part harmony without the accompaniment of any instruments were much like Baptists.
I had grown up with prayers for healing. Most Sundays the pastoral prayer included bringing before God the health needs of various people in the congregation. I don’t ever recall hearing of someone asking for the pastor and deacons to come to that person’s home in order to pray for healing.
In my second year at Waterloo Lutheran, a woman in the congregation asked for the leaders of the church to gather at her home for prayer according to the directions of James 5:14. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. I don’t know if this was the first or the fiftieth time the pastor and leaders of this church had conducted such a time of prayer but they prayed for this woman to be healed. Not long after, the cancer went into remission. Two, perhaps three years passed, I was in Hamilton studying at McMaster. I heard through a friend that the cancer had returned and this woman had died. What do you think? Was her prayer answered only the first time she prayed? Why not the second time?
Let’s take a good look at our text for today. Matthew has put two stories together and we must examine the stories from the perspective of this arrangement as well as the bare details of each story. Notice first of all there is breathless urgency to this text. The leader of the synagogue arrives suddenly. The woman in the crowd approaches him suddenly.
We do not know the circumstances of the girl’s death. Was it also sudden? Had she been ill for a matter of days, or was it weeks or months? Had there been an accident? We don’t know if much prayer had already been offered on her behalf. All we know is the synagogue leader makes an incredible claim about what is possible through Jesus—come and lay your hand on her, and she will live. Wow! That’s a whole lot of faith on display in this man.
There is no indication in the text that Jesus does anything other than begin a straight-line march to the house where the little girl lies dead. There is no room here for misunderstanding. It is impossible to be mistaken as to what was said. It’s not like Jesus can arrive in the house and do a double take. “Oh, I thought you said she was just sick. Not sure what I can do about this.” Jesus is on his way to perform a resurrection. You would think, wouldn’t you that nothing could be more important than that? Except, suddenly, Jesus is interrupted. A woman has touched the edge of his garment.
This is not just any interruption. Every detail is meant to be looked at carefully. For us to fully appreciate the meaning of this story we must understand that much of Jewish life was regulated by the concepts of clean and unclean. Greater minds than mine have looked at this way in which almost everything in Jewish life was divided. The rationale for these laws is never clearly spelled out; it’s likely they have to do with hygiene, various ethical concerns, the need to disassociate God’s people from disgusting or pagan things, and the association of the Lord God with life and wholeness rather than death and disorder.
The rules then covered everything from food to various types of skin disorders to how one dealt with the death of a family member or someone in the community. The only touch point I have from our world is to remind you that some members of today’s Jewish community have an entirely new set of dishes and cutlery and cooking utensils to use during Passover because anything else might have been contaminated with yeast or leaven.
Let’s leave it at this. Concern for ritual cleanliness was something that pervaded the whole of Jewish life. And we must never forget that despite the withering criticisms of how the Pharisees and other religious leaders interpreted their faith, there is no indication that Jesus was anything but an observant Jewish male.
What the woman in our text does is to push to the breaking point several of these regulations. You see, she by the very nature of her ailment was habitually unclean. No wonder our text tells us that she came upon Jesus suddenly. Once she decided on her course of action, she would have had to move quickly. As she made her way through the crowd every person she brushed against would be regarded as unclean for the remainder of the day. She would be expected to stay away from such gatherings for there would be no way to avoid coming into contact with her.
Think about what she does next. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak. Some background is also helpful here. If you look back in the Hebrew scriptures to Numbers 15 you will find that God tells Moses that the Jewish men are to put fringes on the corners of their garments, the purpose of the fringe is to remind the one wearing it of all the commandments and to do them. This fringe symbolizes a Jew’s commitment to the law of God. Part of that law is the whole matter of cleanliness. The unclean woman takes hold of that symbol of obedience of God. It is a daring, audacious thing to do. She interrupts Jesus on his way to a resurrection.
What is it that happens to the woman? She receives the healing she sought and more. Jesus does not scold her, he simply reinforces what has happened. “Take heart, daughter, you faith has made you well.” All of life has now changed for her. I am borrowing the wording of another preacher who describes what happens to her.
This woman is shunned; she has been dis-membered from her community. Jesus speaks to her and re-members her into community. She is not just cured of a medical condition, she is healed. She has been re-membered. Jesus’ gift to her is far greater than a cure. She is now loved, cared for, included back into community.
Let’s go back to our text. Jesus comes to the home of the synagogue leader; the traditions of mourning are already underway—the flute players and the crowds have gathered. Jesus declares that the girl is merely sleeping; this leads to an official break in the mourning so that all who have gathered can laugh at Jesus. When the laughter subsides the crowd is put outside the house and Jesus raises the child to life.
Matthew has put these two stories together for a reason. I think it is within this particular arrangement that we discover some insight into the connection between prayer and healing. There are times when God responds with a yes to a prayer for healing. If any preacher tells you he or she has figured out exactly when and how God will say yes, I would suggest you keep a close eye on your wallet—my guess is that person doubles as a con artist. In our text it is the faith of the woman that is key; in the story of the friends who lower the disabled man through a whole in the roof, it is the faith of the friends about which Jesus comments.
I don’t then have any sort of formula for you, except to say, keep on praying. Because the reason for prayer is not to get what you think you need; the reason for prayer is to keep that connection with God through which God provides for you according to God’s will and purposes.
There are two other lessons for our prayer life that I want to suggest before we finish for today. Here’s the first one—Jesus can deal with interruptions. Perhaps that seems like a silly matter to you, but I think this is something for us to remember. Jesus is interrupted on his way to a resurrection and still reacts with grace and compassion and a welcoming spirit to the woman who causes the interruption. Be bold in coming before God in prayer.
The second idea involves the whole matter of our relationship with God. Let me go back to an observation I have made a number of times—it is simply not an issue as to whether or not you and I are being spiritually shaped or formed. Take it from me and from others who are far more experienced than me in these matters: all of us are being formed or shaped spiritually. The only thing in question is whether the formation that is happening is good or bad.
The woman in our text is a stark example. Her affliction has meant that she has been called unclean. Not only that but it was thought that her uncleanness could be spread, therefore she was shunned, set aside from her community. She was being formed into an outcast, into someone who did not belong, someone who was unworthy of community. Jesus not only cures the affliction, he also begins the work of welcoming her into a relationship with God and with others.
Will you try something with me this morning? I want us to use our imaginations as we pray.