Rev. Brian Adkins
Sermon on Mark 8:22-26
A RIVAL REVIVAL?
I don’t think I’ve ever told you about the time Grandma Flo got me and her and Freida Farley kicked out of church.
We were in a revival service at World Harvest Church, a megachurch outside of Columbus, Ohio. It was the 1990s and televangelist Rod Parsley was somewhere in his transition from humble servant of God to, well, tele-vangical celebrity. He had recently begun driving around town in a big new Lincoln Continental with a pair of Texas longhorns strapped on the front. And his worship services were being broadcast all over the world.
Anyway, we were in that revival service and there was a time when Rod called people down to the front for faith healings. By that time in the service, the whole place was really going- people just caught up in the Spirit or something.
And, you know Grandma, she was gonna do what the Spirit said do. And, as she felt led she started laying hands on people around her. Praying and speaking in tongues. People were shouting, hallelujah!, and dancing in the aisles. Well, that caught to attention of Parsley’s security team (I say, “henchmen”), I think because it was distracting from the performance down front. They came and told her she’d have to stop doing that. Of course Grandma Flo was not a woman to be TOLD to do or not to do anything. She could be asked, but she would not be told. And, when she was in the Spirit, she just might burn the whole place down.
Well, you see where this is going: we were escorted out. The only laying on of hands and faith healings allowed in Rod Parsley’s church had to be through him, on the stage, in front of the cameras. Apparently, Rod Parsley’s people were threatened by what they saw as a rival revival breaking out. If she could’ve got to him, I am pretty sure Grandma would have laid hands on Rev Rod Parsley.
I don’t remember Grandma’s reaction to all that exactly. I know it had to be some kind of righteous indignation. Looking back now I imagine her saying something like, “I’ve been kicked out of better churches than this!”
In my life, I had seen Grandma lay hands on hundreds of people. Many came back later claiming they had been healed by the Spirit. Grandma never took credit for those things, she just shouted, Praise God!, and started praying again.
I saw those things as a child, a teenager, a young adult, and a young man- and though my skepticism grew over time- and I wanted to know how exactly these people were healed. I wanted to see a doctor’s note. But then, who was I to say someone was or wasn’t healed? Whatever it was, something was changed in them. Maybe they had a new look of hope, or joy. Something was changed. I felt it in myself, too, when she prayed for me.
I’ve been wondering about those faith healings lately. Since dad’s cancer metastasized and we’ve been told it’s terminal. I’ve thought of all the people everywhere praying for him, many having laid hands on him. And, well, his cancer wasn’t healed -- it got worse.
It started me thinking about all those healings Jesus did in the gospels. It recently occurred to me that the Bible doesn’t tell us about all the people Jesus didn’t heal. Those who cried out, “Pass Me Not,” whose cries Jesus did not hear. Or those who asked Jesus to let them walk, though they had no legs. Those he passed by or those he prayed for and they died anyway.
We know about the time he didn’t WANT to heal somebody- when the Syrophoenician
woman came seeking prayers for her daughter and Jesus said no, until she convinced him. But that was a turning point in his ministry. It wasn’t about his power, but policy.
We know about the time Jesus showed up too late to heal his friend Lazarus. But then, Jesus raised him from the dead and that was to the glory of God. It wasn’t about punctuality, but purpose.
But then there’s this scripture from Mark- the healing of the blind man of Bethsaida, the man Jesus healed half-way; and had to try again. They brought the blind man to Jesus, “Touch me now, I pray.” Jesus led him out of town and spit on his eyes. The man said, “I see men as trees walking.” But then, we read, Jesus touched him again and his sight was restored.
As I read the story of the man at Bethsaida, I have to wonder why Mark presented a story that seems to question Jesus’ power. I wonder whether Mark left this story in that we might see the slightest imperfection in Jesus. Perhaps in Mark’s writing the healing only went halfway and stopped there. “Don’t go into the town or tell anyone.” And maybe some well-meaning scribe in the Dark Ages, read the passage and thought, “That can’t be right!” And jotted down verse 25, “Jesus touched him again and he was healed.”
Mark alone tells this story. Our later writers, Matthew, Luke and John, leave it out altogether. They tell stories of the healing of the blind, but it’s always a one-shot deal. Immediate and effective.
CYNICS AND CRITICS
The gospels tell us Jesus and his followers were hounded by cynics and critics who chastised and looked for the slightest mis-step or failing. I heard one preacher say, “Jesus’s critics saw him walk on water turned to each other and said, ‘This guy thinks he’s the Messiah? Look at him! He can’t even swim!’
The writer of Mark’s gospel knew his audience. Maybe the early church needed a story of imperfection to help them keep the faith. A story of one who wasn’t healed or wasn’t healed all the way, might have given them perspective when someone in their life wasn’t healed. That, even so, God was still God.
If you google “Why doesn’t god heal everyone?” You will find countless articles detailing how it’s your fault. Your lack of faith; or the sin in your life; or you’re not praying hard enough, long enough or in the right language.
“It must be true, I read it on the internet.” But it is not true. Prayer is not a fast food menu- your way, right away. Prayer is opening ourselves up to God. And as terrifying as it is, sometimes the response is silence. As on the night when Jesus was arrested, he prayed in Gethsemane; and heaven’s only answer was the silence of God. In those times, it can be hard to feel God’s presence or even to believe that God is still there. And we might say so to our friends, who weep with us over the silence. Where is God?
When I arrived home just after they discovered the inoperable tumors on dad’s brain, I found him sitting at the dining room table, trying to remember that scripture about “I know the plans I have for you.” How does it go? It’s from the prophet Jeremiah, chapter 29. I found it, and read it to him- in King James English- the only translation of the Bible to be found at mom and dad’s house, “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Dad said, that doesn’t sound right, they’ve changed the words. I said, “Well, not since 1611 they haven’t.”
I found another translation online and read it to him, “I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper and not to harm you. To give you an… expected end.” That part stood out to dad. “An expected end.” I thought, well this cancer is not the end I expected for my dad. And I could almost hear Grandma Flo’s voice: “Don’t you know? The end is not about how we die- for Christians death has never been the end; the end we expect is to stand in the presence of an Almighty God.”
As Job said, in the midst of his trials, “And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh will I see God: I myself will see God with my own eyes- I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me.”
GREATER WORKS THAN THESE
If you thought this sermon was leading up to a tidy answer about why God doesn’t heal everyone, get ready to be disappointed. I’m not sure that we can know. I don’t know why this God of miracles doesn’t suspend the laws of nature for all of us, to heal and deliver everyone in trouble, sickness, or heartache. Maybe if God did that the whole order of creation would unravel.
Christianity has fractured into two distinct camps: one with all the answers. One with more questions than answers. One contends that when God doesn’t heal, it’s because we haven’t earned it. The other contends that God isn’t in the healing business anymore. I find myself somewhere in between. We can't earn God’s favor or demand our healings. But I can’t help but believe that God is at work in the life of humanity. And that healing happens.
It is one thing to stand on stages, in spotlights, and with all theatrics proclaim faith-healings. It is quite another to live a quiet faith and in our sickness, encounter that silence of God. And I would argue that the latter requires more faith. Do I think that we ought to stop praying- or stop laying on hands? By no means! We ought to reach out in every way we can. Call out one another’s names in our prayers. Seek healing and liberation for the whole world. We ought to pray until we get kicked out of somewhere. Start rival revivals. Lay on hands.
One of the phrases I remember dad quoting from the Bible in my childhood was not a deep theological discourse of Paul, but a simple phrase that appears throughout the Bible that no one ever really notices, “It came to pass.” It’s the King James way of saying, and then this thing happened. But dad would say, “It came to pass. It didn’t come to stay; it came to pass.”
Whatever we are going through, we’re go through; and that’s where I find hope: that whether the healing comes or whether we meet our “expected end.” God bears witness and places people in our path to bear witness to our sickness and our healing, our living and our dying.
Pray with me,
God you have placed us as treasures in jars of clay. Fragile, breakable, temporary. Help us to know that your silence does not mean your absence. Open our eyes, not halfway, but fully. Not just with sight, but with the vision that allows us to see you at work in the world, even when our prayers seem to go unanswered; even when the world says you can’t hear us. Help us to walk with each other, to carry each other. To bear witness to each another and to the world that you are still God, that your love is unfailing, and that our expected end- as much as our un-expected beginning- is in you. Yes and amen.