Today’s readings: Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12; Psalm 25; James 5:13-16; Matthew 8:5-17
I first met Tom probably a few weeks after I started my first assignment as a priest at St. Raphael’s back in the summer of 2006. He was a young man, probably around my age, and was suffering the effects of cancer. His family had called because he wanted to see a priest and I had gone to anoint him at the Intensive Care Unit of the hospital. They didn’t think he was going to make it through the day, but just at the moment I got there, he had woken up and was talking to the family, the first time he had done that in a couple of days. I waited a while, then went in to talk to him, and after a while I did what we’re going to do today: I anointed him with oil in the name of the Lord, praying over him, just as St. James tells us we should do in today’s second reading.
During the conversation with Tom and his family, I learned that one of Tom’s favorite verses of Scripture was Isaiah 53:5, which is right out of today’s first reading: “But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, Upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.” Throughout his illness, Tom, a man of great faith, had prayed the closing words of that verse – “By his stripes we were healed” – every day at 3:00, the traditional time when we believe Jesus gave his life for us, enduring stripes and torture and the agony of the cross to heal our brokenness and give us access to the kingdom of God. He asked everyone he knew to pray for him in that way, and I promised I would do so.
I visited with Tom a couple of other times during his illness. About a month after I first met him, Tom passed from this life to the next, right around 3:00 in the afternoon, just after praying those words that had sustained him during his illness. In the homily at his funeral, I noted that there are all kinds of healing, and that I truly believed Tom had been healed in the greatest way that God can offer us, by bringing us to the Kingdom. By His stripes, Tom had indeed been healed. Tom was the first person I ever anointed and his was the first funeral I ever celebrated. I’ll never forget what a faithful man he was, even during his most difficult days.
We gather together today to celebrate the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. The Church has this sacrament because of those directions from St. James: the sick are to call on the priests of the Church, and they are to anoint the sick person with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith, we are told, will heal the sick person, and the Lord will raise that one up. And if the sick have committed any sins, they will be forgiven.
The Church has this sacrament also because of who Jesus was and because of what he came to do among us. Jesus was that suffering servant from the book of Isaiah’s prophecy, the One who took on our illnesses and bore our infirmities. He was spurned and avoided, oppressed and condemned, all the while giving his life as an offering for sin, justifying many, and bearing their guilt. God always knew the frailty of human flesh, but when he decided to come to his people, he did not avoid that frailty; instead he took it on and assumed all of its effects. This is why we treat the sick with dignity: our frailty was good enough for our God, and we know that the sick are very close to our Lord in their suffering, because he suffered too.
And we know that Jesus cared deeply for the sick and the suffering. Large portions of the Gospel – including today’s Gospel reading – see Jesus caring for the sick, responding to their faith, healing them from the inside out. The sick sought him out, they called out to him as he passed along the way, they reached out to touch just the tassel of his cloak, their friends brought them to Jesus, even lowering them down from a hole in the roof if the crowds were too big. He was moved by their faith, always responding to them, healing not just their outward symptoms, but also and perhaps most of all, the inner causes of their illnesses, forgiving their sins, and giving them a place in the Kingdom.
Jesus still does this today. He still walks with us in our suffering, whether we are to be cured or not, letting us know that we don’t suffer alone. He still responds to our faith, curing our brokenness and healing our sinfulness. If he judges that it is best for us, he heals our outward symptoms too, perhaps even curing our diseases, and he gives us all a place in the Kingdom, if we have the faith to accept it and to receive the healing he brings us.
Jesus continues his healing mission through the Church in our day. Certainly the priests provide the sacraments to the sick and the dying. But also, the entire people of God are called to the corporal work of mercy of caring for the sick. Every act of mercy and every prayer for the sick is part of the healing work of Jesus. Doctors and nurses and therapists and other caregivers also provide the healing ministry of Jesus, particularly if they are men and women of faith. Today, after Communion, our parish will commission nine new Ministers of Care, people who will visit the sick and bring them the Eucharist in their homes, in hospitals, and in nursing homes. The Church’s ministry to and with the sick is the visible sign of the love of God at work in our world to all those who are suffering.
We don’t know if you all will walk out of this holy place healed of all your diseases. But we can promise that you will be freed from your sins, healed from the inside out, and that your Lord will always walk with you in your suffering. Just like for Tom, the healing will come at some time in some way, of the Lord’s choosing, for your good, and for the glory of God. That’s why we are here today. That’s why we celebrate this beautiful sacrament with you today. We know that our Lord deeply desires to heal us. And we know that Tom was absolutely right in his profession of faith in our Lord’s goodness: by his stripes we were healed.