by Rev. Scott Summerville

Mark 8:22–26

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him he asked him, “Can you see anything?”

And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again, and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then Jesus sent them away to his home, saying “do not even go into the village.”

Are you worried about healthcare? What worries you most?

Health and healthcare is on all our minds these days.

Are you aware that healthcare is one of the main subjects of the Gospels? The most persistent theme in the Gospels is the fact that every where Jesus went there was a crisis of health care. Everywhere he went he was mobbed by people who were sick. Yes, people came to hear Jesus speak, but the impression the Gospels give is that the primary reason people flocked to Jesus was that they were desperate for healing for themselves or their loved ones. Ponder that.

Because we are disciples of a healer, Christians have a particular slant on healthcare because we profess our belief in one who was a healer. Everywhere he went he healed. I am a bit uncomfortable when people talk about “the great spiritual teachers,” and include Jesus in a list of great spiritual teachers. Jesus was indeed a teacher. They called him Rabbi, which means in Hebrew, “teacher.” But Jesus was not just a teacher. The activity that dominates his ministry in the Gospels is healing. As we see from today’s Gospel story that this was a very down-to-earth, roll up your sleeves, spit on your hands and get to work kind of business. When we think of a teacher, especially perhaps a “spiritual teacher,” we don’t tend to think of someone surrounded by desperate, sick, and worried people clamoring for release from pain and help for their loved ones, and when we think of a teacher we don’t usually picture someone rubbing spit on people’s eyes.

Jesus was a teacher but more than a teacher, and the fact that he was a healer puts us on notice that Christians should have a special concern for healing, especially healing for those who are most desperate for healthcare. Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t give us any unique wisdom about how to solve the healthcare crisis, but it does require us to insist that system that excludes so many people from care are morally unacceptable and must be changed.

There is something that is curious to me about the Gospel story’s day. When people brought this man to Jesus and begged for his help, instead of responding immediately, Jesus takes the man by the hand and leads him away from the village outside of the town. This is an unusual detail in the Gospel. Jesus took this person by the hand and walked with him before doing his thing with the spit in the eyes. I don’t quite know what to make of this. It certainly adds a quality of intimacy to the encounter of Jesus with this person.

I heard a very wise doctor speaking the other day. She said that medicine is more than technical skill; it is a human to human art; and that a doctor’s capacity to be present with the human being who is the patient and to listen carefully to the patient and read all the signals coming from the patient is critical to the doctor’s ability to accurately diagnose and treat illness.

Jesus walks hand-in-hand with the blind man before the actual act of healing takes place – this is a very personal encounter. I suspect that underlying so much of the passion around healthcare today is the fear we have that someday we or someone we love will not be treated as a person. We fear for ourselves or those we love that someday they will show up at a hospital and because they don’t have the right card they will be denied medical care. Or they will receive care, but it will be mechanical, unfeeling, minimal treatment. We fear that in some moment of distress or disease or injury we or someone we love will not be treated with dignity and given appropriate care and regarded as a person.

There is so much worry in the air these days that it has become very difficult to have a sensible and factually-based conversation about healthcare.

One of the senior and very respected members of this church is Doug Smith. Doug has been for many years on the Board of Directors of the Holy Comforter Nursing Home. He was telling me recently about the struggles that nursing homes are facing in trying to provide quality care to patients within the reimbursal limits set by Medicaid. Doug is struggling very directly with the crisis of health care and its impact on the elderly. He mentioned that this particular home that he has devoted so much attention to was established by the Episcopal Church. Our congregation has had a close relationship with the Methodist Home in Riverdale. So many of our healthcare facilities have their roots in communities of faith who believed that their faith required them to be about the business of healing.

Quite a number of our church members are in medical professions. I have a very positive feeling as a pastor knowing that out there on the medical front lines there are so many compassionate and committed people whose spiritual grounding will enable them to care for people’s medical needs with compassion and humanity.

Our congregation has been involved in establishing a medical clinic in rural Ghana – a place of staggering infant mortality and lack of any sort of regular health care for the people. Rev. Marion Hubbard who was instrumental in launching this project, the Dorcas Project, was here last month in our pulpit, and she has been keeping us up to date on the progress of the clinic. Since she was here she made us aware of the timetable for the opening of the clinic and the current immediate needs. (See above.) This week our congregation will send an additional $1000 to the Dorcas clinic project, and in September we will raise additional funds for the project – and we are still looking for a person or persons to go to Ghana in 2010 to have a hands on role in the project.

Disciples of the healer need to care about having a fair and compassionate system of health care in our own country. It is not morally sufficient simply to ask whether my healthcare is working for me at this moment. The entire system is facing crisis; huge numbers of people are uninsured; most people face the risk of loss of insurance for catastrophic costs above and beyond the limits of their insurance; and the cost of our health care far exceeds that of any other nation. At the same time we are part of a global community and we recognize that the crisis is a global crisis.

There is something else that we are aware of that is not part of the national health debate: we are aware that being healthy does not necessarily mean that you can pass a checkup at the doctor’s office with flying colors. There are people whose physical systems are not working well but who are healthy. We are aware that life is more than the body.

I will never forget sitting in a circle, a family circle, where the mother, the matriarch of the family was dying, and where she had said “NO!” to any further medical procedures. She had come fully to accept that her physical life was approaching its end. She gathered her family from two continents and asked them to sit with her, so she could hear from each of them before she died, and so she could address them all. Children and grandchildren and in-laws – each one spoke personally to her of their love and their appreciation for her . Then she looked into each of their eyes and said to all of them:

“I mean what I am about to tell you. And I want you to understand that I mean it. Listen to me: you are all here with me, and I am looking at all of you, and this is the best. This is the best moment of my life. Do you hear me? Do you understand that being here with you in this room right now; this is the best moment of my life?”

It was an awesome moment.

Our bodies are to be honored and cared for and not abused, but in the end we all wear out, no matter how many doctors we see or how many procedures we have. Earth to earth and dust to dust…. we are mortal.

People have every right to be anxious about their health and the state of our medical system, and we need to do what we can to fix that system. If we do not fix it then everyone will suffer.

At the same time we proclaim that there is more to life than a healthy body.

As Scripture says: If we live we live to the Lord. If we die we die to the Lord, so that whether we live or die we are the Lord’s possession.

Grace and peace to you.