A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 19, 2017
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Matthew 17: 14-20
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
In this Lenten Season we continue our journey of Facing the Darkness, standing like that young basketball player in the gym, shooting free throws, trying to put his mind in the reality of being down 2 with 2 to shoot, or like Bill Murray’s character in Caddyshack, the Cinderalla story, lining up his shot at Augusta, armed with a scythe, ready to take a trip into glory, putting all of his weight into a clump of flowers. . . yes he’s got about a 2 iron, I think. . . we are trying to put ourselves in the mindset of what it is to face the darkness, and still be able to shine our lights. . . last week we took a look at danger, when apparent danger is all around, when you are on the boat with Jesus, and the storm is rocking, and he is sleeping, and it seems like all is lost, like He has abandoned you, to doubt, fear, and desolation, but then he steps up and calms the storm, and all of the fears and dangers subside, does our faith falter in such moments, does it grow once the storms have subsided? Perhaps, but today we head further into the depths because today we talk about Disease. . . there are so many passages from the Gospels where Jesus cures someone with a disease, but I chose this one, Matthew 17:14-20, because it offers another voice to the idea of disease and cures. . . in the Call to Worship Psalm, the psalmist speaks of his affliction caused by his sin. . . In the Old Testament story of Job, read by Erick, we see disease caused by a cosmic discussion between God and Satan, proving Job’s faith, and here, well take a listen:
14 When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, 15 and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” 17 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”
So there you have it, from this perspective we have a disease, in this case epilepsy, caused by a demon, then rebuked by Jesus, curing the boy instantly, which if the disciples had a little bit more faith, they could have easily rebuked it, for even faith like a mustard seed can move a mountain. . . so which is it, what is to blame. . . is it sin, is it lack of faith, is it demons, God proving a point to His angels, is it germs, viruses, bugs, dirt, grime, ecoli, genetics, carcinogens, loose living, not showing enough restraint, Government bureaucrats, insurance companies, drug companies, or is just plain bad luck.
One of our initial reactions to disease is exactly these, what is the cause, what are we to blame? Ever since the fall in the garden of Eden, when faced with adversity human beings look for something or someone to blame. . . it seems to help us cope, to deal, to give us again the illusion of control or allows us to cling to clear conscience innocence, that when we face trials seems so important to us, but one thing that I’ve found in my life with disease is I don’t have the first clue about it because I haven’t really experienced it first hand. I am blessed at least temporarily with youth still, and have remained relatively healthy in my life up to this point, a fact that will no doubt of course always be the case. . . young and invincible with all the time in the world ahead of me. . . no, of course not, there are two inevitables that are unavoidable aspect of long life, and those are old age and disease. . . we all face it, some sooner than others, but it is a reality we all head towards, and though when we are young it can seem like it will never happen, we are only fooling ourselves.
I came across the prayer for preparation this week in my studies. . . I found it in the Oxford Book of prayer I picked up a few years ago at a book sale. I want to start there, use it as a transition from my youth and inexperience to facing disease. . .
Lord, teach me the art of patience whilst I am well, and give me the use of it when I am sick. In that day either lighten my burden or strengthen my back. Make me, who so often in my health have discovered my weakness presuming on my own strength, to be strong in my sickness when I solely rely on thy assistance. Amen.
I remember it as clear as day. I was in my first year here, and coming in on Fridays, like I do still Mary Southard, still coming to church every Sunday, would also always have her appointment at the Beauty shop, and she would always come by a little before hand and bring the church’s mail by, and we’d talk for a bit, and then she’d have to run. I don’t think she’d mind me saying this, but one of those times she asked me if I could help her with patience. . . . I wish I had seen this poem then because it was almost as if she knew how hard the next few years would be, years where patience is truly so necessary, time moving slowly in one aspect, waiting for Dr. Visits, for bones to heal, for phone calls, etc. . . while time is constantly moving too fast, as Parkinson’s all too quickly attacks poor Tom’s body, the patience to wait, and the patience to treasure every passing moment. . . all too hard, and all too much a part of facing disease.
Like I said, I don’t have much experience with disease in my life. When I was 3 I was hospitalized for pneumonia, spent time in an incubation tent in Suffolk, during a Christmas visit to my grandfather’s, but I don’t really remember it, just glimpses and scenes. Since then I haven’t really had much, at least since being a senior in high school, with a recurrence of pneumonia again, but this time during football season. . . I played a game against our rivals, played every snap, was coughing in the huddle, then was coughing up blood after the game in the showers. . . tried to refuse to go to the doctor, lest I should miss the next game, I did, got the xrays, yes pneumonia, and yes, would miss the next game, and haven’t had much time for doctor’s since, and to this point have been healthy enough to not need to go.
Yes I have no experience, but I look around this congregation and think back on the last 5 plus years, and think of how much disease you all have faced. Many of you are the experts with the experience. Cancer, heart attacks, back surgeries, a broken pelvis, more cancer, hip replacements, broken ankles, broken hips, even more cancer, seizures, fibro myalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, still more cancer, alzheimers, dementia, over medication, under medication, even still more cancer, Parkinson’s, trouble with cancer treatment, shingles, brochitis, you name it we’ve faced it, or you’ve faced it. What is it like? You tell me. . . and some of you have.
I’ve heard the question why? Why me, I thought I did everything right, I’m too young for that, I never smoked, I always tried to eat right, no one in my family has ever faced this, why me? Doesn’t this take us back to where we started, our initial response to disease is about assigning blame, even if it is ourselves, because we want it to all make sense, we want to be in control, and if it makes sense we are in control. I’ve heard it from people again and again. I want to know why. . . . and don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that this is something we shouldn’t do, but rather saying just that it is something we all do. I think that is the sentiment pouring through in the Psalm. . . “There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin.” I’ve always wondered about these Psalms, especially ones like this, are they about God, or are they about people and the way we see God. . . does God in this say yes you are afflicted because of your sin. . . no, but there is something in us that thinks that way. . . I must’ve done something. . . it is like the Job friends, you must’ve done something to bring this on yourself. . . I know that any ailment I’ve had, I felt a sense of embarrassment or blame, if only I hadn’t done that, I’d feel better today. . . and there is some truth to that, I could eat better, I could be in better shape, but that is tough too because we all know someone who doesn’t eat right, who never exercises, who never gains a pound, who is in the prime of health, who is making bad choices all the time, but is doing better. . . everyone has that great uncle who smokes 4 packs a day and eats bacon every morning breakfast and a rare steak all the time for dinner, and lived to be 101. Assigning blame and causality isn’t so easy, and perhaps it doesn’t really get us anywhere, nor helps us actually face disease. . .
At some point, as I’ve seen from many of you, there is a point where the blame game, the asking why time, and the guilt is over and it is simply time to face, to fight, and to push forward. It is at this time that I have seen some of the most amazing strength out of you. When it all comes together, where there is no escape, there is just the path forward, is it there you feel real power and presence?
I’m not sure. . . I know I’ve seen it. If we look to the gospels we see countless examples of people being healed of their diseases, and in this one we see Jesus doing the same, and then also saying that the disciples couldn’t heal because of their lack of faith, and that it only takes the faith of a mustard seed to move mountains. . . I have to wonder, is it faith that causes the mountain to move, in other words is it faith in God that causes mountains to move, or faith that God has power to move mountains if God so wills. . . and that the same is true for disease. . . we’ve said it is natural for human beings to wonder why, to look to blame, around the cause of a disease, but the same is probably true about the cure. . . we look for why, when the truth is that both are mysteries. . . I have seen people healed, and I have seen people not be. . . it is enough of a mystery to leave me humbled, and enough of a mystery to leave me with faith. . . it is true that there are two things that can happen from disease. . . you can be healed or not. . . I don’t know the reasons for either they are trapped in mystery, but I have experienced enough to have faith that God’s will, will be done. . . I pray that we can know that the answer to the question why? And the answer to the question why not, are both God. . .
I believe to my core that life is about compassion, feeling compassion for the pain that we suffer as human beings, loving through it, being faith filled in it. . . when it comes to disease, we can be healed of our disease, and continue our compassion here on Earth as a witness and testament to the power of God to heal, and if we are not healed, we head off to our rest, and stand at the Right hand of God the Father, to eternal life in heaven. . . . we can face the darkness during this season of Lent because Easter is coming, we can face the darkness of life with compassion because Christ is already Risen. . . God grant us the strength, for next week we talk about “Facing Death.” Amen.