January 24, 2010
The Third Sunday after the Epiphany
A 16-month-old child was dying; her mother wanted someone to come to the hospital to pray. Once again, I was presented with the frustration we in ministry all face, the frustration of not having good news, freedom, or recovery to offer someone. Once again I was not able to look a sickness or disease in the eye and say:” Be healed!” If there were one more gift I would ask of God in doing my ministry, that gift would be the power to restore the many suffering people I see.
Someone has calculated that every human being, on average, has some medical complaint or problem every three days. An aspirin will usually do, or a Band-Aid, or a good night’s sleep. But occasionally we need Creator healing. In the next year, many of us will undergo batteries of tests and diagnostic procedures. We will endure CAT and MRI scans, electrocardiograms. We will use therapies, treatments or surgeries; be bombarded by laser, sound or radiation; measured and fitted with heart valves, knuckle joints or pacemakers; and mobilized once again with braces, crutches, a walker or wheelchair. The arsenal to overcome our tendency toward illness is impressive; the cost staggering. Yet, though treated, counseled, or operated on, all of us will eventually lose the battle.
You see, the bodies we inhabit for what we call a lifetime are imperfect vessels, jars of clay, as Paul said. Their resistance to attack ‘is futile’, as it was said in that long-ago movie. Their endurance under severe stress or trauma has a breaking point. Without food, as we know, these bodies last only weeks; without water, only days; without air, but a few minutes.
Has God, our Almighty Creator, failed us somehow? Is the design so fraught with flaw and imperfection that God has had to depend on the medical establishment to undo the least divine blunders?
I doubt that! God has not failed in carrying out a better creative plan. Nor do I believe that we are flawed when we should have been perfect or weak when God intended strength and invincibility. Weakness is not an absence of strength; it is rather the means to strength. The struggles that you and I must go through to survive, to deal with our pain and are suffering, to conquer our imperfection; occur not because God hasn't succeeded creating us, but because God hasn't finished creating us.
As I sit with a family who has just lost a child, I know how difficult it can be to place that catastrophe into some kind of understanding of a loving and gracious God. It is a temptation to say that God planned it this way, that God sends us trials and tribulations to test and teach us. In Jesus Christ, however, we are revealed a God who is loving and compassionate. He said, “In this world, you will have tribulation, but fear not, I have overcome the world.” Our troubles are not sent to us by God; they are already here. The Scriptures reveal quite clearly that brokenness and fallenness are the basis of this world. From the opening verses of Genesis, the Hebrew people described it so well: “The earth was without form and void, darkness was upon the face of the deep.” Rather than sending us trials, God's spirit is still at work calling us, bringing something out of nothing, light out of darkness, life from death.
A little girl, upon finding a butterfly cocoon, brought it home and planned to care for it until the butterfly came out. She waits with eager expectation until the day finally arrived. A tiny head appeared, munching its way through the gray, paper thin wall. She viewed the little creature with such love, but what she wasn't prepared for was how long it would take and how difficult a time the butterfly would have.
With a small stick, ever so carefully, she decided to give the butterfly a helping hand. And within moments instead of hours, the butterfly was free. Then it tried to fly, but when it stretched its wings, it fell and died. “What happened?” She pleaded, teary-eyed, to her father. “I even helped.” “The Caterpillar needed that struggle,” her father answered. “Without it, it was never able to strengthen its wings to fly.”
When we struggle, God wants us to become something through that struggle. The real miracles that occur in hospital rooms are not the ones where suffering has been canceled in a moment, at the end of the prayer, but where, through suffering, someone has courageously lived. Whether a child dies at 2 or 20, what has been demonstrated is not failure, but the miracle of life being called out of chaos.
Jesus began His ministry with these words read from a scroll of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” The arrival of the dominion of God was, in those words, inextricably tied to helping the poor, releasing prisoners, healing the sick. And yet, the poor remain in our streets, our prisons are overcrowded as never before, and every one of us will eventually succumb to ill health and physical death. Had Jesus failed? Was it a mistake to announce that Isaiah’s prophecy had been fulfilled in this reading by Jesus?
Following in His steps from that early synagogue worship service, to the hills of Galilee, on the road to Jerusalem, and the way of the cross, we discover that suffering is not God’s will. Rather, life in the face of suffering is God’s will; courage in the face of hatred and prejudice.
God’s will is to call these things out of the hurt and brokenness that we are and that we find around us. Yes, you and I need good news, freedom from healing; that is, in Christ, healing of our minds and hearts, freedom from our attitudes and outlook, good news to speak as we get up in the morning, and new hope for what we are doing in our lives. With Christ, the prophecy is fulfilled, in you and in me.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.