Opening Convocation of the 150th Academic Year of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago September 9, 2009

by James Kenneth Echols
former President

Is it coincidence or providence? As they are prone to say on Fox News, not that I watch it that much, we report and you decide. So is it ordinary coincidence or divine providence that this Gospel text about healing and health should come before us in these days?

Tonight, President Obama will go before a joint session of Congress to address the nation on health care and the healing that is provided through it. In these days, we are told that some 46 million of God's children in this land, many of them here on the South Side, not to speak of the billions all over this world, lack adequate access to it. In these days, we are engaged in debates about the pros and cons of public options versus non-profit cooperatives, universal coverage and restrictive rationing, single payer plans and multiple payer plans. In these days, we've seen reports on town hall meetings out of control as civility and respect have given way to screaming and insults of one sort or another. Is it coincidence or providence that this Gospel text about healing and health should come before us in these days?

And in these days, we commence on this campus yet another academic year, students, faculty and staff together united in a single purpose, to prepare women and men for ministry. We will teach and learn; we will worship and work; we will fellowship and feast, we will discuss and decide. And we will do all these things knowing that what we do has everything to do with God's will for healing and health.

Jesus was on the move. When he encountered this Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin whose daughter was possessed of a demon, he was in the region of Tyre, a place along the Mediterranean Sea, a place adjacent to Phoenicia, a place not too far away from Syria to the north. In the next scene, Jesus was on his way heading southeast toward the Sea of Galilee in the region of the Decapolis where a deaf man with an impediment of speech was brought to him. What tied these two events together was the very human desire for healing and health. The woman wanted it; the crowd wanted it, and I suspect both the daughter and the man who neither speak nor act in this text coveted it as well.

This longing for healing and health is very understandable to us. In his book Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey Through A Country Church, Richard Lischer wrote about his experiences as a young parish minister, including his pastoral encounter with Amy Friedens in a rural Lutheran church in southern Illinois. Amy was thirteen years old, a student then in Confirmation class and a victim of cerebral palsy that kept her confined to a wheelchair. Her deepest desire to shed her illness and to secure healing and health for her body led her one day to attend the crusade of self-declared evangelist and faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman in a St. Louis auditorium. To her deep disappointment, the crusade did not eventuate in the healing and health of her body but neither did it remove from her being that deepest yearning of her soul. Like Amy, we all yearn for healing and health no matter our circumstance in life.

In this Markan passage, the reality and gift of God's healing through the Christ brought forth health in these two people. One was female, the other male; one was at a distance and was never touched by Jesus, the other felt the warm embrace of his fingers; one had a physical malady, the other an illness of the spirit; one was apparently young, the other not so young. Notwithstanding their differences, what tied them together in this text was that they were sick and in need of relief and release We do not know whether they had health insurance, but we do know that there was a health care provider on the scene who brought healing into their lives. The demon left the woman's daughter, while hearing and speech came to the man. Healing was given and health was restored, those things for which we never cease to pray privately and publicly...

And yet, we know that healing and health do not always come and that sickness and death cannot be escaped forever. For me, this story does not call us to believe and trust automatically and uncritically in healing and health. For me, this story does proclaim and witness to a God whose will, in the midst of sickness and death, is healing and health in all its dimensions. I once had a professor who declared that while God does not will everything that happens, in everything that happens God does have a will. And God's will is for healing and health, an expression of God's love.

Shortly, as the church, the community of faith has done for two thousand years, we will gather once again around bread and wine, the body and blood of our Lord. And as we do so, we will once again seek healing from our self-centeredness, our lack of love toward others, all those things that hold us captive. We will also gather to seek health for the sake of the world. We will be reminded that the Christ who healed and brought health to the woman's daughter and the deaf man was on His way to Jerusalem, there to hang on Calvary's Cross, there to give up health and strength and life itself that through His stripes the relationship between a loving God and an estranged humanity might be healed.

And we will come once again to the table carrying and bearing our wounds physical and psychological, emotional and economic, social and otherwise, not wanting anyone else to notice or to know. And that's alright. Simply come as you are once again, knowing that God's deepest desire is to bring healing and to promote health that you might go away feeling loved and singing, "It is well, it is well with my soul."

This is the Good News around which we gather on this campus and that we celebrate in this chapel and that we study in the classroom. But there is more, and the more is that the healing and health that God gives us in Christ God desires to give through us to the whole world.

And so we are called to be assistants of the One who is the Great Physician, agents of healing, hope and reconciliation, using our hands and hearts to participate in God's work. Holes in ozone layers and pollution in water ways remind us of a wounded earth and the task of promoting healing and health in the environment. Children and others are excluded from the abundant life because of lack access to healing and health, and God is calling us to lift our voices in the midst of the national debate and say, "Come, let us reason together." And right here on this campus, animosities and conflicts and hurts between and among people reveal the wounds that we carry and inflict on one another and God is calling us to be agents of healing and health. For the God whom we worship and serve is a God of healing and health for all of God's people and the whole of creation. This is the Good News that we celebrate and proclaim this day and everyday.

Is it ordinary coincidence or divine providence that this Gospel text should come before us in these days? Perhaps, in good Lutheran dialectical fashion, it is both. We report, you decide.



Mark 7:30, 35

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