A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 11 July 2021 by Revd Sally Hitchiner.

Before I was ordained I led a church children’s holiday club in an area of social deprivation. That week I met two people who I think I will never forget.

The first man was a successful session musician. The type of person who could play just about any instrument he put his hand to, violins, saxophone, drums, ukulele. He brought a selection to the holiday club and delighted the children jumping between them. At the end of the first day the leaders went for a pint in the local pub. I learned that the musician helped every year on this holiday club but didn’t seem to be involved in the church much outside of that. After a pint I asked him what his story was.

He leant in. “I’ve just had the most extraordinary few years.” He said “I’m lucky to be here really. Eight years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. It was the type of cancer that 97% of people don’t survive. I’m not normally religious but I decided to try out this church and after the service a lady said a prayer that God would heal me. The next day I went for a scan and found that it was shrinking. Six months later I was completely cancer free. None of the doctors have ever known someone recover as completely as I have. I think it had to be those prayers. I decided I wanted to live a more generous life so I’m using part of my annual leave each year to come here. I’ve been given a second chance at life so I want to do something good with it.”

The second person was a little boy. I don’t know if you have ever met a child where you wonder what is going on. This child must have been about five years old. He had an older sister who was 7 going on 17. She was distant and didn’t want to hang out with adults at all and occasionally shot a look that fumed with anger… The younger boy would often follow me around. At the end of the children’s time he would linger back as if he wanted to stay longer. Whenever I stood up to announce something I would look down to see that his little mop of blond hair was right at my side. When I sat down for circle time I’d find that he snuggled next to me. On the last day he didn’t want to go. He cried at having to go home. He started screaming saying he wanted to stay here. His father had to pick him up and carry him back to the car. His father came back half an hour later to explain. His mother died a few months ago, of cancer. They had known she’d been not quite right for a few years, she lived with daily pain and indignity and her mobility reduced. The doctors hadn’t given her the right tests. In the end it was only 3 days between when they got a proper diagnosis and when she died. She was only 33. “The thing you should know is that you look just like his mum.”

“How are you?” I asked.

“I’m ok” he said. He started to cry. “I thought it would do the kids good to be back on this camp. They do it every year… though” he eyed me up and down deciding whether to say it. “To be honest I’m not sure what I think about God right now…We all prayed for her, you see. Even the vicar prayed. We all prayed that she would live.”

Today is our Annual Healing Sunday. How do we have a way of thinking about healing in St Martins that has space for both of these people?

Our understanding of healing is like an incomplete jigsaw puzzle. We have some pieces and when we put them all out there’s a chance we might catch a glimpse of what it’s intended to depict.

Some of the pieces are very old, dating as far back as the stories of Jesus in the Bible, and some are new from our lives and the lives of those around us here and now.

The first piece is that God is not distant from the prayers of humanity for healing.

Jesus spent a lot of time with people who were sick. In the Gospels Jesus spends more time with those who are sick and disabled due to sickness than any other group, by a long way. Even when he goes back to his home town and it’s noted that he couldn’t do any miracles, they say “Oh, except for healing a few sick people” as if that was his common or garden miracle. If Jesus is how we know what God looks like, it seems like healing people and being with people when they are sick is very important to God.

Sometimes we can see the rest of the Trinity as more remote. However Jesus talks about God the Father being attentive to us when we are in need. In Matthew chapter 7 Jesus even says “What father would give his child a stone if the child asked him for bread or a snake if the child asked for a piece of fish? If you who are evil know how to give your children good gifts how much more will your father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask.”

And it’s not just sick people in general. Jesus spends time listening to people, seeing them as more than labels. More often than not, Jesus asks the sick or disabled person what they want him to do for them. Have you ever wondered why this is the case? Jesus approaches people with respect and offers a conversation, not just a solution to what everyone assumes is their problem. The thing people want healing may not always be the thing others expect. Anne Memott memorably preached a few years ago at our disability conference talking about the strangeness of the idea that she might be healed of her autism. She could not imagine who she would be without it. However, her arthritis or short sightedness was another matter. She would gladly be without them. The thing that Jesus deems most in need of healing may not be the thing that others deem as the most pressing need.

I wonder if God always heals but not necessarily the thing we pray for our friends or even for ourselves. In Luke chapter 7 a group of friends tear up a roof to get a paralysed man through the crowds for healing. We don’t hear this man speak but I’m guessing he may well have hoped that Jesus would help him walk so he could be like other people in his society. Jesus looks at him and immediately says “Friend, your sins are forgiven” – this may seem as odd to us as it did to the religious leaders at the time. But perhaps his greatest need was not physical healing but spiritual, or relational, healing for the way his society understood him. In a culture that assumed that if you were disabled you must have done something to offend God. Maybe deep down, he worried about this himself. Perhaps what he most needed was to have a declaration in front of everyone that this man is a friend of Jesus, and that his past was not a reason for him to be like this.

There are lots of ways we may need healing; healing for the patronising way we’ve been treated and the way that has reduced our confidence, healing for the bitterness we’ve stored up as we’ve let anger fester, healing for our assumption that God is distant and uncaring, healing for the relationship with another person or with our community who see us as less than we are.

Perhaps we are all being healed in small ways every time we open ourselves up to God, every time we pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done”, every time we bring one another to Christ in prayer like the friends with the stretcher. But Christ does not always heal in the order we expect.

Then I wonder if healings aren’t about singling one person out for special treatment.

There is a strong Christian tradition that suggests that any healing today are a prophesy, a sign of the greater healing to come, the great resurrection of every person when Jesus comes back to bring a new Creation with renewed bodies, minds and spirits for all. And that this existence with bodies without pain and minds without suffering will go on for ever and ever. On one Being With course I remember a penny drop moment for one of our participants. If 70 years of life was not all there was to life it didn’t matter so much that her experience of life felt unfairly full of suffering compared to other people’s. She had plenty of time to make up for lost time. Other people being healed are messages for you from God that something much greater is coming to you too.

You could say healings are canapes. You always know at an event that if the canapes look good, even if you don’t get close enough to the waiters to try one, you’re in for a great meal ahead. Just as Jesus being a human being who was resurrected from the dead is a hope that other human beings – you and me could be resurrected from our death, if you’ve been healed in body, mind or spirit now, you are the living sign of greater things to come for everyone. You might want to find ways to tell people your story. Those stories can bring a huge amount of hope.

An experience of healing now, any experience of healing now is not just for ourselves… it is a pointer to the great healing that is to come.

But Healings in the Gospels go one further than this. They are not to make us say “Wow!” but “Who?”

St Augustine in the fourth century put it like this

“If we see a piece of beautiful handwriting we are not satisfied simply to note that the letters are formed equally, evenly and elegantly: we also want to know the meaning the letters convey. In the same way a miracle is not like a picture, something to look at and admire but to leave it at that. A miracle is more like a piece of writing which we must learn to read and understand… Let us ask the miracles themselves what they teach us about Christ… ”

Perhaps we should be asking healings in our lives the same question.

Ultimately a healing (a healing of anyone) is a sign that there is a recreating God who is near to people in suffering. Suffering is very different when you have someone with you in it. One of the most powerful stories of the rise of the internet is the alleviation of suffering through people who are experiencing life debilitating sickness discovering others who have some understanding of their experience.

Healing is the embodiment that God is still found hanging out with those who are sick.

Jesus’ commitment to us continues in that human suffering stays with him. His commitment not to let go of our hand in our suffering means that our hand is held partly in Glory now. The limitation and pain and indignity and isolation of suffering is held, not just in the pages of the Bible but in the very heart of God.

So Jesus comes with us in prayer to God with our needs and the needs of those in our community. Come to be prayed with today. I can’t promise that you will have the specific healing you ask for, though maybe you will. What I can promise is that God is with you in your need. God is bringing you, and the whole of creation to a new future where all our pain and limitation and indignity and suffering will be swallowed up in love.

God promises to be generous.

God has decided not to be apart from being with us.

God promises to heal us.