few years ago I heard a rather humorous and poignant story from the rector of a medium to large size parish. The church had a rather elaborate set of bells that were used regularly; not just during the service, but throughout each day they would ring out at 6am, noon, and 6pm, the traditional hours of prayer. The people in the neighborhood around the church were used to the bells, and it was one of these neighbors that stopped by the church one day to speak with the rector. “Something isn’t quite right with the bells Father” the woman informed the priest, “they just don’t sound right.” She explained that the change in the quality of the sound was not new and sudden, but had occurred gradually over time.
The priest informed the vestry and it was agreed to hire someone to inspect the bells. A contractor was hired and they soon had a report ready; the sound quality of the bells was being affected by the large amount of bird droppings that had accumulated over the years.
He gave the church a quote on cleaning the belfry and the bells and said his team could get to work almost immediately. It was quite a sum, though. They had two options. They could leave it alone, and let the bells fall silent; or they could hope for a sudden windfall to cover the cost of cleaning the bells and belfry. A prayer was raised and the decision was made to hire the cleaning crew.
However, before the cleaners arrived a parishioner contacted the rector with an idea which offered a bit of a silver lining; before they completely clean the bells a sample of the offending substance should be obtained and have it tested for nutrients; after all guano is very good fertilizer.
A sample was obtained and sent off. The results came back and it turned out it was rich in nutrients and suitable for use in gardens and for prize winning tomatoes, petunias and whatever else one might want to grow! The cleaning crew was instructed to save what they removed; it was packaged and offered for sale at a farmer’s market. The proceeds paid for the cleaning and even left a surplus! And the bells went from out of tune, hindered, filthy to good as new and again clearly pealing out the time of prayer.
Often we find our souls and bodies just out of sorts, muddied, in a state not as God intended; we feel we are left with only two choices, do nothing and fall silent or pray for healing. Like the decision about the bells, we just aren’t comfortable with doing nothing; so our prayers for healing grow stronger.
In this morning’s Gospel we meet Jesus, early in his earthly ministry, working wonders of healing throughout Galilee; and significantly in the home of Simon’s mother-in-law. Remember, it was not too long ago that Jesus had called these four – Andrew, Simon, John and James – away from family and occupation to become his disciples. This had to add to an already tense situation as they come into her home, on the Sabbath, and she lies there sick. Then Jesus, this man that had disrupted their family, reaches out, takes her hand, lifts her up and restores her to health. Why? I don’t think it is because they all needed a bite to eat or something to drink, although it appears that way on the surface. No, I believe at this moment Jesus, by healing her, gives us insight into what lies beyond healing of the body; it is the love of God that restores us to our Creator and one another. It is healing and restoration.
While the healing returns her health, in doing so restoration occurs for this family. Remember, Simon, who of course later is given the name Peter, probably sees little, if any, of his home and family after this; but he, his wife, his mother-in-law, his brother can take comfort in the love of God left there, a love that in this moment restores not only her health but her family, as they enjoy the Sabbath meal together.
When God heals us in this restorative way, it is not so things can go back to the way they were. God has something new in mind for us.
A few months ago a good friend of mine, Jim, passed away after a lengthy illness. I visited with him each week and we had talks about all sorts of things, including many prayers for healing. There were times I could tell, Jim felt more like those in the town left unhealed as Jesus moved on rather than Simon’s mother. However, over time his prayers evolved beyond healing, he wanted to be restored. Jim recognized that even though the answer for the physical healing he sought may be no, the answer to a deeper prayer of “God show me where I need to be” is indeed answered. In his last year his prayers for others seemed to be without ceasing, his love and concern for those who visited with him were a blessing, and while his body faded the bells of his soul pealed out louder than ever with prayer. Jim bore witness to what we heard in Isaiah this morning “Have you not known? Have you not heard? He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless”
There are times that the prayer for healing finds God meeting us where we’re at, in ways we don’t expect, to restore us to where we need to be right then and there. We may find God’s work in us is to give strength and power to the soul when the body is shaken, weak and faint. And it is through the restorative element that the silver lining is possible.
Let’s go back to the bells. They could have simply cleaned the bells and belfry and restored them to the way they once were, and all would be well. However, the approach taken, unusual as it may seem, not only restored the bells and their unique place at the church and in the neighborhood, but it created a ripple effect of blessing. They became better than before as the tolling of them reached far beyond the neighborhood. The excess money raised went on to fund other ministries at the church, the presence of parishioners in the farmers market allowed them to go out and meet God in the neighborhood, and…well…the fertilizer gave bounty to gardens in the forms of produce and beautiful flowers. The bells were not just restored but transformed.
In today’s Gospel we likely see the most powerful transformation occur when Jesus casts out the demons. While demon possession isn’t something we encounter or think of all that often, we know the power our personal demons can have over us and how they keep us from the love of Christ. Whether they are big or small demons such as addiction, hatred, prejudice, pride, anxiety, fear feed off of all that clutters our soul until we lose sight of the light of God. Little by little, it builds up until the light becomes faint. We indeed have demons Christ can cast out.
As we work our way through the healing process – whether that be for physical healing, our sins, or the stains on our soul – toward restoration, God can work through us in transformative ways and we emerge as something new. We no longer carry the tune of the bells when first installed, or the muted clangs of bells hindered, but a new, beautiful song in witness to God.
As we are moving closer to Lent, a time set aside for penitence, we may begin by inspecting our own belfry. As we pray for the healing that we desperately need, let us keep in mind the power we will find in restoration and transformation through God. Like the bells, it isn’t one problem that often presents a barrier for us, but an accumulation of problems over a long time.
The 13th century Franciscan St. Margaret Cortona, a patron of many people on the fringes of society, offered advice that may be beneficial to us today.
“Hide nothing from your confessor, a sick person can be cured only by revealing their wounds”
It is a beautiful reminder that when we turn to God for healing we should bring it all in our prayer – the physical ailments, sorrows, sins, fear, and doubt; no matter how big or how small bring all to the one who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds”
May all that keeps us from the fullness of God’s light be swept away.
May we be restored to the wholeness that God wants for each of us.
And may God transform us and through us all of God’s creation.
Preached by Mike Corey