The Rev. Barbara Lundblad, the Joe R. Engle Professor of Preaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, talked with Church Health Reader about preaching on healing passages from the Bible.
John Shorb: What advice would you give for someone preaching on a healing passage?
Barbara Lundblad: Anyone who follows the lectionary will be preaching on a healing passage quite often. Even though I know how many healing passages there are, I’m still astonished when I go back and look at each of them. The first halves of Matthew, Mark and Luke are filled with healing passages.
These are tough passages because the people in them are always cured. I use the word “cured” because it is a different from the word “healed.” I think there are people that have been healed even though they have not been cured. We usually make the healing stories into metaphors so we do not talk about the healing of bodies because we want to be sensitive to that person who is sitting there whose body is not going to be cured. We tend to say that we all need to be healed from the divisions that separate us, or that we need to be healed from our worries and stress. It becomes a kind of metaphor. In order to be sensitive to people we end up erasing their bodies.
It is a difficult thing if someone is sitting there on Sunday morning with a serious cancer and you are preaching about people being cured. It is a challenge for any preacher to be mindful that these passages may be very hard to hear for some people, especially if their spouse or parent just died – they could feel that if they had more faith it would not have happened. In the Gospel of John in chapter nine, Jesus disavows the connection between sin and disease. As pastors, we have to keep saying that illness is not because of sin.
A few years ago, I led a retreat with another woman named Nancy Eiesland. She lived her whole life with a serious disability, and for many months of her life she was flat in bed and unable to walk. She had had 13 surgeries by the time she was ten years old. She challenged me to look at the healing passages and put the person with the disability at the speaking center. This was difficult; in many of the healing passages the person that is healed often does not say anything. We are challenged as preachers to bring in the voice of people with disabilities.
It’s like having a conversation with the passage. What does it mean if you are living with a disability? Are the disabled veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan going to be in our churches? Are churches places of healing for the disabilities that cannot be cured? I recently heard that 93 percent of households with a family member with a disability are un-churched. That is a staggering figure. How do we preach on the healing passage with those people in mind? It is a challenge, but it needs to be done for these people to find a place in our churches.
You mentioned having a conversation with the passage or thinking about the person being healed at the center. Are there other things to keep in mind?
We need to be aware of and help people see the sheer number of healing passages in the gospels. Jesus cared deeply about people’s bodies, not just their souls. Over centuries, we have separated the body from the soul so people think the only thing the church is concerned about are people’s souls. In the gospels, Jesus was concerned about people’s bodies – bodies that were lame, blind, hungry or untouchable. When you look at these passages, Jesus talks about the well being of bodies.
There are passages that have strong messages about the access that people have to health care and healing. One example of this is the story where the paralyzed man can't get to Jesus on his own so his friends have to let him down through the roof. People are desperate for healing and health care and they do whatever they can to get to a place of healing. These are people who did not have any access to health care, so in a sense they have to get let down through the roof. I think this is happening to people all over the place.
Pastors and church people have a responsibility to have as much concern about people’s bodies as Jesus did. I think that is a constant theme in these healing passages.
There are some who believe that a congregation cannot be healthy without a healthy pastor. How can we address clergy health?
Clergy are under a lot of stress. People eat due to stress and don’t take time to exercise. The parish has so many pressures and so little chance for rest. Clergy often do not take a day off. With the economy, some pastors have taken second jobs. Pastors are in a difficult situation: they are seen as role models in the community so there is pressure to be morally upright. I think this stress can spill over into the congregation. I think congregations can be healthy even if their pastor is not as healthy as you would hope. Over time, I’ve seen that congregations have been faithful even when their pastors have not.
What do you see as a way to start a conversation about wellness in a congregational setting? Is it best to start from the pulpit?
There is so little conversation about bodies in churches. We should look at how we talk about bodies in liturgies and prayers. We should give thanks for our bodies and not give the impression that bodies are not important. You can have these conversations in a Bible study or a committee meeting, but you reach far more people at Sunday worship. There are things we can do on Sunday morning. Unless you skip half of the New Testament, you will run into a passage about healing. Those of us who are used to preaching on the lectionary should take a break and focus on doing a series of sermons on God and the body. People need to know that theologically God intends our bodies and our spirits to be together. For so many years, Christian teaching has taught negative things about the body – that the body imprisoned the soul. On the other side, you have people who are obsessed with their bodies and getting thin. You do not want to give people the impression that only in-shape bodies are welcome in the church. Culture already focuses on perfect bodies. We are talking about healthy bodies that may not look perfect.
On a smaller level, a wonderful way for people in churches to focus on wellness is to start a walking group. Those kinds of practices are really important for congregations to do together. If my walking friend is not there, I might skip. If she is there, then I am much more likely to go. Think about five different practices that people can do together or as a family. Have a series of sermons over a period of four Sundays and then encourage people to get involved in these practices during this time.
John Shorb is the Editor of Church Health Reader.