“Religion is the Wound”

Preached at St Peter's House on 15th February 2009 [Second Sunday before Lent]
2 Kings 5.1–14

It had all gone horribly wrong. Not only had the NHS failed him, the private practice had, too. Doctor after doctor had pronounced his condition incurable, had tried to break the news gently; perhaps the hospital chaplain had even suggested it was God's will. There was nothing to be done.

And so, off he went – took his passport, left his family, off to India, or was it California – one of these places that offered a radical treatment no one else was offering,

He heard rumours of it, and his pain was unbearable, and in the end there really was no other option. I wonder if he pinned his war medals to his chest on his way out the door.

Meeting the king, he almost starts a war; and when he finally does get to the prophet, Namaan won't even get out of his chariot; he expects the holy man to come to him – right up to his chariot window, perhaps on roller skates with a tray to take his order, like at an American diner from the 50s. It had gone horribly wrong, he thought to himself, as he drove the chariot down through that desert to the Jordan river, to that muddy flow of a river that healed him.

Healing certainly didn't happen the Namaan wanted it to. He expected immediacy; he got more red tape and roundabout answers. He expected it in his home country; he was sent across the desert, to foreign kings and prophets and rivers. He wanted control, and instead he was opened to a God who works beyond human control, who even works beyond the boundaries set by religion; Namaan, of course, was a Syrian, an enemy of the Jews, although it was the God of the Jewish people who healed him. Healing certainly didn't happen the way he expected – or the way we might expect.

We've had healing stories in Mark's gospel for the past three weeks, stories of demons exorcised, Simon's mother-in-law cured of her fever, and today the leper healed at Jesus' touch and words. But for my money Namaan's story is far more like what I know of healing – the length of time, the pain, the rising and then dashing of hopes and expectations, the tremendous effort that Namaan has to go through, and and also the frustration and denial and demands and anger.

I struggle with these stories of healing – and I'm sure many of us do. They seem so out of touch with our time, with our understanding of medicine. Even if we are inclined to accept that Jesus was a healer of some kind – which, although it might embarrass us today, was one certainly the way he was understood by the writers of scripture – even if we accept him as a healer, there is the scandal of some being healed, and not others.

Of course the tension that arises when some are cured and not others is a tension that runs right the way through scripture. Namaan gets his 15 minutes of fame in the New Testament when Jesus preaches in the synagogue in Luke 4; by way of making his point that God cares about non-Jews as well as the Jewish people, Jesus points out that there were many lepers in Israel at the time of Elisha, and only Namaan was healed.

We are not going to find any easy answers about sickness and healing in the bible if we go fishing for it there.

Our protest might begin in fairness – about who is healed, and when, and why our friends and family – but our protest expands into the cry of the psalmist for help for those we know; help for those who haven't found healing, help for those who suffer like those in Africa who can't afford the cost of pharmaceutical drugs whom we heard about on the news this weekend.

The playwright and TV writer Dennis Potter certainly knew something about healing and sickness and the control that we want to have over our own well-being.

And his journey with his illness was epic, like Namaan's. Have you heard of Dennis Potter? He was one of the most influential playwrights of the second half of the 20th century; he wrote the screenplay for Pennies from Heaven, and many other shows and plays, and he suffered his whole life from a skin disease that would have been classed as leprosy in biblical times. At age 26 the symptoms of inherited disease Psoriatic arthropathy first came out in him; the symptoms were intense burning sensations on the skin, extensive blistering, swelled joints, periods of delirium. The swelling in his hands curled them into fists permanently. In one interview I found I read from 1990 he described the rounds of medications that he had tried, some of which wiped out his white blood cells, and another which caused growths that had to be removed, another which made him curl him in the corner of a room like a monster, he said.

He contracted liver and pancreatic cancer at the end of his life, and he gave his last interview to Melvyn Bragg on TV a few months before he died in 1994. At one point Bragg asks him what he thinks of God; he'd noticed that Potter had never left God behind in his plays. And Potter said something that could have come straight out of the psalm that he we heard this morning. Potter said,

Religion to me has always been the wound, not the bandage.

I don't see the point of not acknowledging the pain and the misery and the grief of the world. And if you say, ‘Ah, but God understands’ or through that you come to a greater appreciation, I then think, ‘That's not God, that's not my God.’ I see God in us or with us, if I see God at all, as shreds and particles and rumours, some knowledge that we have, some feeling why we sing and dance and act, why we paint, why we love, why we make art. [1]

Religion is the wound, not the bandage; the opening to the suffering of the world, not the guarantee of suffering's healing, as Namaan wanted, as we want; the giving up of control, not the taking of control.

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote something similar. Bonhoeffer left asylum in the US to return to Germany during the Second World War, despite the fact that he would almost certainly face execution there for his outspoken stance against Nazism. Back in Germany he was imprisoned for two years before he was executed. He wrote in a letter from prison: ‘It is not the religious act which makes the Christian, but participation in the suffering of God in the secular life.’ Participation in the suffering of God makes us Christian; and we might add – as Bonhoeffer showed in his life – participation in suffering as a protestor, even a martyr. [2]

To be Christian is not have the cure, or trust in a God of control; – sorry to disappoint you, Namaan – it is instead to wait and watch with Jesus and with other disciples in the garden; to live through the death of Gods of control and authority until one is met by a true and living God of grace and new life and healing.

My family and I visited Bolton Priory last weekend to have a day out in the snow, and I didn't expect to be so moved by the old ruined monastery. The Priory is a 12th century monastery now in ruins, that has figured in English literature and is a haunted place. Part of the priory has been fully restored and is a parish church, and in the church they have restored what they think is the original altar stone. Most of these altar stones were destroyed in the reformation of the English church in 16th and 17th centuries, but this one survived, perhaps because it had been used as a headstone in the graveyard. The reason they think it was the altar stone was because you can still make out five crosses carved into the stone on the four corners and in the front – five crosses that, as the plaque explained, symbolize the wounds that Jesus received when he was nailed to the cross, and that he still bore when he was rose.

My tradition was the one that would have torn down altar stones like this one, but those crosses on the altar stone speak to me very deeply now: wounds that were healed but are still present, still open; open to the world, open to you and me; wounds of the one who, as we sang just a few weeks ago, is risen with healing in his wings. The one risen so that on our journeys we, too, might hear rumours of God, shreds and particles of God, and give up our search for control and instead sing and dance and love – and protest, and be open to, the suffering of the world.

Nathan Eddy

[1] “Dennis Potter’s Last Interview, On ‘Nowness’ And His Work.” John Rockwell, New York Times, 12 June 1994.

[2] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison: An Abridged Edition. SCM Press: London, 2001. I am indebted to Orrin Judd in a post on 23 March 2008 for drawing my attention to this passage.