Monday, August 10, 2009

Faith Healing: An Argument for Common Sense

Sheepscott Community Church August 9, 2009

2 Samuel 18: 5-9; 15, 31-33

John 6: 35, 41-51

Faith Healing: An Argument for Common Sense

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On Monday this past week I  rendezvoused with Paul Rice the piano tuner, who is becoming a regular visitor to our church community, and led him over to Karin Swanson’s house. He had agreed to evaluate her piano as a possible replacement instrument for the Valley Church piano, which has played its last Christmas service. Karin offered the gift of the piano of her childhood to the church for its use. A great gift.

As I headed along the Sheepscot Road toward Damariscotta, I tried to remember, was it the first or second driveway on the right? I opted for the second with Paul close behind and drove down a dirt track, grass growing in the center. About a quarter mile down the road I knew, this isn’t right. Karin’s house is not that far in off the road. The question: to continue on in hope of a turnaround further on and to make absolutely sure it wasn’t Karin’s long driveway, or to stop and fess up to the apparent mistake and back out, not saving face––too late for that––but saving any more of Paul’s precious time. That’s what I did. Paul was gracious, as he has proven in the past, and after correcting the error, we found Karin’s house and the piano.

What I want to focus on from this brief vignette is the importance of reversing direction when we find ourselves on the wrong road, and not to keep pushing ahead in an unrealistic hope that somehow everything will magically work out. No, put the car in reverse and back up. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Back up and recover the right direction. Never mind if it’s embarrassing. There’s no telling what we might be avoiding even as we suffer a bit of embarrassment about actually not being perfect.

This little story opens into another story that I’ve read in the paper in the last week, which story concerned me enough to build a sermon on it. Did anyone read about the man and wife out in Wisconsin who with friends prayed for the couple’s daughter to be healed? All well and good; I am a strong proponent of the efficacy of prayer for healing and have seen the positive effects in my own and others’ lives. In this case however, the 11-year-old daughter Madeline was suffering from undiagnosed diabetes. She couldn’t walk, talk, eat or drink, and her father, Dale Neumann, thought she had a flu or fever and testified that he never expected his daughter would die. He believed God would heal his daughter, as God promises in the Bible to heal.

“If I go to the doctor,” Mr. Neumann reportedly testified, “I am putting the doctor before God. I am not believing what he said he would do.” That attitude does not recognize that healing in all its forms and from all its sources, comes from God. Mr. Neumann’s interpretation of God’s thought about healing is just that: a private interpretation that is rigid and emanates from a view of God as a demanding father, ready to punish the disobedient child––in this case Neumann himself––if he does not  continue on in unwavering faith down that dirt road toward an unguaranteed destination. 

I cannot help picturing in my mind’s eye Abraham, ready to slaughter his son Isaac because he believed that is what God was asking him to do. He was ready to sacrifice his own son. I have suggested before when we have discussed this scripture that what was more likely going on there was God trying to teach Abraham something new, that the slaughter or sacrifice of children, of human beings, which was a common practice in the land of Canaan, when Abraham resettled from Ur, was not what God desired. God is saying No, this is not pleasing to me. This is not what I am asking for. Instead an angel of the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand and, as the story goes, a ram was provided for the sacrifice. 

Although the jury in Mr. Neumann’s case did not make any reference to the Abraham story, they, like God, decided for the child, and because this is a case of criminal justice and not divine justice, there is a different outcome. No alternative victim could take Madeline’s place, as the ram had taken Isaac’s, but like Abraham, perhaps Mr. Neumann will have learned something new from this sad incident. He was found guilty  of second-degree reckless homicide in his daughter’s death, as was his wife in an earlier trial. Their case is believed to be the first in the state of Wisconsin that involved faith healing in which someone died and another person was charged with homicide. 

Last month, a jury in Oregon convicted a man of misdemeanor criminal mistreatment for relying on prayer instead of seeking medical care for his 15-month-old daughter who died of pneumonia and a blood infection. He and his wife were acquitted of a more serious manslaughter charge.

If any of those parents raised up the specter of Abraham as a justification for their own perseverance in praying for healing for their daughters, I would want to encourage them to think about God in a different way, as the provider of the alternative means, i.e., Jesus. Don’t kill the child in some idolatrous exercise  of obedience that you ascribe to me. I see the model of that aspect of the God of the Old Testament as the same One carried over in understanding to the New Testament, the God who requires the death of Jesus in order to make atonement for a sinful world. I imagine that God as more like David in his heartbreakingly sad mourning for his wayward son Absalom, who was about the business of wresting the kingdom away from his father. Did David love his son the less for that? No. He knew as a politician, a warrior and ruler that he had to deal with the insurrection, but as we heard in this morning’s reading, he took precautions as a father to make sure that the young man was not hurt or killed. Unfortunately he did not have the power to control the outcome, regardless of the precautions.

Hear his lament again, and tell me that God’s lament over his Son crucified, over all his lost children, lost in whatever pain and for whatever reason, is any less poignant. “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you––O Absalom, my son, my son!” We who have children, especially grown children who are beyond our power to “save,” if I can use the word, can relate to David’s anguished lament. In prayer recently with a woman whose adult daughter is not putting her car into reverse as she continues to careen down that road that leads to nowhere, I thought of the image of Michelangelo’s Pieta, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, holding the body of her dead son. The anguish matches that of David’s lament, but for Mary, it is beyond words and eloquently captured by the genius of the sculptor.

I believe this wordless image of Mary and Jesus, and this anguished lament of David, bespeak the God whom we worship more than the lightning bolt tosser who demands his pound of flesh, demands an obedience, which in the two cases cited, resulted in the death of innocent victims. God was teaching Abraham something new, and I think these contemporary narrations are teaching us anew the same lesson. As it says in Hosea 6:6: “It is mercy I desire and not sacrifice.” * Jesus quoted that line from  the prophet Hosea at least twice. The first time was shortly after he had called Matthew, the tax collector, to follow him. Because he was eating with tax collectors and sinners, he scandalized the pharisees, who said to Jesus’s followers, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’’’

Did those parents show mercy? Even as I ask that, I know it’s unmerciful on my part to be asking the question in the face of their loss, but I think this is an important issue about the role of obedience in relation to scripture. Our beliefs can sometimes blind us to the suffering in front of us. An ideology based on punishment for disobedience, and that obedience called for by laws external to the individual, such an ideology leaves little room for a wider more generous interpretation of life and its meaning, of God and his love. 

For those parents, they thought they were being obedient to the God of scripture who would heal, and they refused any adjustment of their view of God that would have allowed the intervention of other healers, those doctors, who, like Jesus, care about the sick and use all means at their disposal to heal. The wise medical doctor does not dispense with divine healing but knows that the origins and impetus for the body’s healing is a mysterious something that he or she finally can not explain or necessarily understand. Sometimes it takes years of mellowing through practice before the good doctor knows that she or he does not know. But humility before mystery does win out in the end and makes the best doctors and scientists and people generally.

Everything is subordinated to love, which is to say, to God. It’s so hard to get out from under the punishing view and image of God, when we were raised with it. But we have to be willing to learn more, to learn something new about God, as Abraham did. That God is more like the grieving David crying out for his son Absalom than he is the removed lawgiver who demands the blood of his own son to satisfy for sin. This is a tall thinking order I’m giving you here, but I do lay it on the table.

I want to hold up King David in his humanity again , to help us to understand what it was about him that God loved so much and to be inspired by that. In joy he danced before the Lord, with complete abandon, not caring what others thought or said about him. His joy was in the Lord and the dance was for the Lord.

As fully did he give himself over to lust and the fulfillment of that lust with his faithful soldier Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. His lust led to the murder of an innocent man. David did nothing halfway, and that included his repentance, when he was convicted by the prophet Nathan of his sin.

And now this week, we see David in the extreme throes of grief, in agony over the loss of his son Absalom. His bereavement is complete, as with everything else about this larger-than-life figure who is yet so accessible to us because we recognize our own weaknesses and strengths in him. I believe it was because David was himself, fully human, that God loved him. He didn’t pretend that he was anything other than what he was, but with all of what he was––shepherd, harpist, warrior, leader, friend to Jonathan, king with all its trials and privileges, sinner, father, husband, adulterer––with all of these titles and aspects, he was himself before God. God loved him and forgave him again and again, because he repented, and raised up after him a heritage in Israel. 

Ten generations after David, Jesus was born in his line. The savior in the line of David. If David went down a dirt road in the wrong direction, and he surely did do that when he pursued Bathsheba, but moreso when he committed the sin of the spirit in plotting to get rid of Uriah, if he hurtled down that road to nowhere––and he did––he also slammed on the brakes and jammed that car into reverse when Nathan the prophet convicted him of his sin. He repented. He repented. That’s the most ordinary way to reverse a course, as I did when trying to find Karin’s driveway. 

Those parents, when they saw that their children were not getting better with prayer, continued down that dirt road, acting out of a mistaken idea that God would be displeased if they sought medical help. That attitude about an angry Father God, waiting for us to trip up so he can punish us, is idolatry at its worst because others suffer for it. The attitude begs for the exercise of common sense and mercy in relation to those children who were dependent on those parents to make good decisions about their, the children’s lives. God willing they and we can learn from the sad loss of those young lives.   

I believe that when people are subordinated to an ideology, an idea, the quality of mercy does become strained because others cease to really see the suffering of the person. The idea is all that matters. Jesus bursts through that model the way high school football players burst through those paper barriers at the beginning of football games––at least in the movies. He has no patience with that. He, who willingly gave his life, his very flesh for the world by his free choice, not by his Father’s demand, reminded the pharisees and reminds us, It is mercy I desire and not sacrifice. 

Let me conclude with one last story. Two sisters were on their way to school. They had left home that important five minutes later than usual and were afraid they would be late to school. “Let’s pray we won’t be late,” said one. “Fine, but let’s run while we’re praying,” said the other.

Like those sisters running and praying, we too can seek out the doctor’s help and also pray. Then, when we know we have done everything in our power, we can be at peace and more readily accept any and every outcome. Amen.   

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