The Reverend Mark Birch, Minor Canon and Sacrist
The prophet Isaiah foresaw a time when God's purposes would be fulfilled, when the eyes of the blind would be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
So when Jesus healed the deaf-mute on the road to Galilee, as we heard in the gospel reading, we are meant to understand that God's purposes were being fulfilled in Jesus.
It is not clear precisely what was wrong with the Syrophoenician woman's daughter, in the first part of the gospel reading, but her deliverance from it is, again, a sign of Christ's divine authority. Indeed all the healing miracles are presented to us as signs of divine fulfilment, as signs that the kingdom of God has come near in Jesus Christ.
Later on, the apostles were confirmed in their ministry by similar miracles of healing, carried out in the name of Jesus, continuing his work, as we read in the book of the Acts of the Apostles.
Those considered Saints throughout subsequent ages, including the King enshrined behind the high altar here, have generally been declared Saint on the basis of their healing intercession.
Healing is a sign of God's kingdom—the fulfilment of God's purposes.
So it is a bit disappointing, to say the least, for those of us who often pray for healing—for ourselves and for others—when, more often than not, the longed-for healing does not materialize. We know we are supposed to have a more nuanced understanding of healing as something emotional and spiritual if not always physical—but, if we are honest, that can still feel a bit like a consolation prize.
So what are we supposed to do when our diseases of mind and body persist—when the deaf continue deaf, the blind, blind, those oppressed by demons, however we might understand that, continue oppressed. What is the point of all this unalleviated suffering? What is God up to?
There are some simple answers to that question that are sometimes offered—and these come with a hefty health-warning:
First: if we only prayed enough, or if we prayed in the right way, then God would do what we asked.
Or Second: suffering is an entirely just punishment for our sins so we just have to bear it, because, deep down, we deserve it.
Or, Third: there is no God, so there is no point, no meaning to any of it.
One could offer no end of objections to all three simple answers, but, perhaps the most important objection is that none of them is of any help whatsoever. All of them, ultimately, increase suffering—they compound it—and nowhere do we see Jesus either doing this, or recommending that we should. A cornerstone of medical ethics is non-maleficence, or 'First do no harm', and as people of faith we have a similar responsibility. We are not here to make things worse for one another.
I have been privileged to work in a couple of places where people seem to have more than their fair share of suffering; first in a hospice for children, and second in a school for children with disabilities. The suffering of children feels especially devastating and unjust—the questions seem somehow sharper, more urgent—we can hear it in the persistent and courageous voice of the Syrophoenecian woman in the gospel, as she pleads for her daughter.
In a hospice, you know that you aren't going to make it all better—but you can make sure that it isn't made worse. You can make sure it isn't made worse by the environment in which the child and family are held—hospices are, generally, beautiful, comfortable, unhurried places. You can make sure it isn't made worse by the isolation that many families, especially those with chronically ill or disabled children feel—children's hospices offer respite care, family support, including for siblings, who may feel especially side-lined. You can make sure it isn't made worse because of inadequate palliative care—hospices offer expertise and time that simply isn't available in many acute hospitals.
Spending time with disabled youngsters in the school, it became clear to me that there is so much in the world that makes things worse for them—as if their disability weren't enough.
Access for wheelchair users remains a significant issue, albeit a difficult one to resolve in ancient buildings like this. It doesn't take much imagination to know what it's like not to be able to get into places where other people can go. Being excluded, even if there is no malice or harm intended, is never great.
Many of the students I worked with had no ability to speak, and their methods of communication were often slow and laborious. Given time, important and significant matters could be communicated, but if people were in a hurry or impatient it just compounded the students feeling of isolation.
Many of the students struggled with the responses they got from people in the street—either being stared at, or patronized or excluded from conversations going on above their heads. It's not that people were being cruel particularly, I suspect they simply didn't know how to behave—they weren't used to being around folk with disabilities—I'm sure most of it was sheer awkwardness.
In the letter of James that we heard earlier, there is a clear instruction to the Church to show no favouritism; to make no distinctions between rich and poor members. It is important that we remain alert not just to those we may be favouring but also those we may be excluding, albeit not intentionally—and people with disabilities, including those coping with the disabilities that come with age, could well be an important category.
When it comes to human suffering, there is much that we can do that falls into the category of 'first do no harm'—simply paying attention to the attitudes of mind that, without any malice, marginalize, and the aspects of the physical environment that restrict and exclude, all of which simply makes the suffering worse than it need be.
This may not literally give sight to the blind or unstop ears—although it might make life less hard for those who are blind or deaf—it may not bring deliverance from demons, however that is understood, but it may alleviate the depression of someone who feels isolated in their suffering.
When Jesus said 'the poor will always be with you', I think we can be pretty sure that there will always be suffering in this life—for all of us in one way or another.
So what is God up to in this? I suspect God is up to the same thing he has been up to from the beginning—which is the creation and redemption of the world—and I suspect that no life is too short or limited to be of significance in that creative-redemptive process. The suffering is hard—hard to endure, harder still to understand—but we have more power than we realise.
James, in his epistle, quotes the same scripture as Jesus—you shall love your neighbour as yourself. It is love, the greatest of all spiritual gifts, that enables us to recognise and respond to the suffering in others. It is love that fires that deep sense of the sheer offensiveness of suffering—an energy that drives so many especially in the medical and nursing professions.
God is at work in all of this—the same God who in Christ worked miracles to show us that our desire for healing is ultimately his—and that all those prayers we offer for healing are not in vain, even if the result in this life is not the fullness of what we seek. Christ is risen from the dead to assure us that suffering and death will not have the final word, and Christ gives himself to us in bread and wine as a pledge that we too will share in that victory.
In the meantime there is much we can do through love; through simple, practical compassion so that suffering is not compounded, is not made worse by marginalising or excluding those who are suffering. I have been speaking mostly about disability this morning, but much is also applicable to the suffering of the refugees that continue to stare at us through television cameras. The Syrophoenician woman was only looking for the crumbs under the table—she knew it wouldn't take much to change her world—and with God, as we know in the eucharist, even crumbs, fragments can become charged with the hope of a new world, and become signs of the fulfilment of God's healing work.
In the face of suffering we have more power than we realise, it is placed even today into our hands; it is the power of love, the Holy Spirit within us.