Whom Shall We Heal?


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown

June 23, 2019

Texts: Acts 3:1-20; Luke 7:1-10

       The grenade went off too soon and now the medic rushed over to the wounded man and began tying tourniquets to stop the bleeding. The Marines who had narrowly escaped the perpetrator’s fate stood by and watched him as he madly continued working in what seemed to be a futile attempt to stop the gush of blood from the neck, shoulders and arms. “Get over here!” the medic shouted––the language bas been edited for your ears, but only one of the group moved to help. The rest just shook their heads. “Let the bastard die!” one shouted, and the rest of them spewed forth a slew of ethnic invectives.

        We only have to move back a few thousand years to ancient Palestine, occupied by foreign troops, when the centurion who had heard about Jesus asked for him to come and heal his slave. The leaders tell Jesus, “He is worthy”––although a Roman occupier––“because he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” They present the centurion as a man of piety, at least in this situation. Shall we call him a kindly occupier?  But he is still part of a brutal occupying power. So Jesus heals the slave, not for the slave’s sake, but for the centurion’s sake and for the local religious establishment fearful of what might happen should he deny the request.

        If we look at healing stories and parables that include healing in Luke’s Gospel, we will see that Jesus reaches out to those on the edge of his own society––in this case, the centurion; in others, lepers and Samaritans. And Jesus heals more than the body; healing is almost always accompanied by some form of emotional restoration as well.

         The Gospel here presents us with difficult questions. Whom do we heal? How do we make choices and set priorities for healing? There are obviously many levels to these questions. One is a bioethical question relating to how limited resources are distributed in society: Who gets a kidney or lung transplant? How do we make decisions that are rationally based? Should we do it by age, or race, or even by national origin? One would think decisions should be made by medical indicators. Now, of course, it’s done irrationally––by money. People in Third World countries sell one of their kidneys. The Chinese, always efficient, even to the end, “harvest” them from persons executed for crimes; the med-ical vans are close by to cut up the dead for their organs. Gruesome, we say. True, but why waste a good body?

        A second question is how we determine who gets med-ical care generally in our society. Now it’s totally by money, like practically everything else in America. In spite of the Affordable Care Act more than 27 million people in America are still without health insurance and they use the most ex-pensive system––the hospital emergency room. And they’re not primarily undocumented immigrants. Most are the work-ing poor––citizens or lawful residents who work in the so-called service industries, like fast-food chains.

       In 1974 in response to the revelations to the study of syphilis in poor untreated men in rural Alabama, Congress passed the National Research Act which authorized a National commission on bioethical studies to protect people from sim-ilar abuses. This Act also resulted in a commission to examine decisions made by medical personnel that had ethical impli-cations, such as end of life care and treatment of fragile new-borns as well as all the tough decisions in-between, such as who gets that kidney transplant.

        One issue faced by medical personnel involved trans-plants for people who had so abused their bodies through smoking or drinking. Should the alcoholic get a liver trans-plant? And what about the heavy smoker and lung trans-plants? Kidneys are really scarce as well. Should a person’s character play a part in the decision? Who lives? Who dies?

        Fragile newborns can cost anywhere from $50,000 to a cool million. Under the ACA, caps are banned. And, we say, well and good. Why should a family lose everything because of a premature baby? Cost is only one factor, of course. There is also the question of at what point care should stop espec-ially if the patient is dying more than living.

        Beyond these questions are central theological ques-tions. In her book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, Duke Divinity School professor Kate Bowler considers her response to learning that she has stage IV cancer at the age of 35. As she wrote in a recent blog:

“Much of Christian theology rests on the image of God as the ultimate reality beyond time and space, the creator of a past, present and future where all exists simultaneously in the Divine Mind. But where does that leave the bewildered be-liever who cannot see the future and whose lantern casts light only backward, onto the path she has already taken?”

        This extraordinary woman will die as a result of her cancer. At this point she cannot be healed in the physical sense of the word, but as her blog continues, she realizes that the love she continues to encounter from the people around her gives her another form of healing even in her illness.

          Healing is more than just physical, as the story in the second part of Luke-Acts tells us. It is restorative. The cripple who sat at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, now no longer in existence due to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, was not just healed of a physical infirmity. He was restored to new life––for now he no longer needed to beg but could live a full life with possibilities now open to him. Acts tells how he jumped up and began walking and praising God.

         And when we are healed, isn’t that what we do? It seems that we usually turn to God at two kinds of times in our lives: when we despair and feel alone and, second, when we’ve received some kind of special gift like remission of a cancer, being placed on the transplant list, surviving a heart attack. The centurion in despair over his slave whom he valued highly and the man suddenly healed are just two ex-amples of this all too common approach toward God.

          Jesus was summoned to the centurion but Peter and John just happened to stumble over the cripple at the beau-tiful gate. They healed him in response to the immediate situation before them, not an uncommon occurrence regard-ing those who need our assistance.

          Those who need healing often are literally in front of us. They are those who need more than our compassion; they need our care, the real care that a just and righteous society gives. Do we see them? Do we respond? Or do we respond only when summoned?  

          Let us pray: God of infinite grace, give us the sight to see those who need our assistance, those who need healing. And help us to heal those who need it. Amen.