Sermon Sunday 4th October St Marylebone Healing Service
In my work as a counsellor in the Healing and Counselling centre here, my starting point is to get to know the client sitting across the room from me; to listen, and be attuned, to his or her unique narrative, as it gradually emerges.
But as two people working together, this is also a shared process, even though we obviously have different roles. So as well as listening, I am also aware of what might be gradually emerging in me; including sometimes where psychological insights might resonate with the client’s spiritual or religious conflicts or issues.
This evening I come to you with my preaching hat on but I have approached my task in a similar way.
I have used one of the lectionary readings provided for today to see what might gradually emerge as I thought and prayed about it. And I have found it rich in imagery and associations that speak to both our psychological or emotional well-being and our spiritual lives; in short that have the potential for healing.
Thinking first about the narrative from that reading in Joshua Chap 3: it follows the children of Israel who, having escaped from slavery in Egypt, had been wandering for many years in the desert. Upon the death of their leader, Moses, Joshua had been commissioned to finally lead them into the Promised Land.
But, in order to do that, Joshua and the people had to cross the river Jordan, and to do it when the river was in its spring flood. So the river Jordan stopped them in their tracks.
It was a visible and somewhat daunting boundary; a dividing line between where the people had come from and where the people wanted to go.
Perhaps this is why crossing the River Jordan features in the lyrics of many of the spirituals that were sung by African American slaves; songs that expressed their religious resistance to the inhuman conditions of slavery.
The River Jordan represented the boundary between slavery and freedom. Crossing the River Jordan symbolised journeying home, the hope of rebuilding their lives on the other side.
We hear this hope expressed in these lyrics from the spiritual “Swing low sweet Chariot’.
I looked over Jordan and what did I see,
Comin’ for to carry me home’
A band of Angels comin’ after me
Comin’ for to carry me home.
Perhaps holding on to this hope was really important because in reality, the slaves were certainly suffering and they knew the journey home would be equally hard.
We are all on a journey aren’t we? That journey can sometimes be hard and tough for us, too. I’m wondering where each of us is on our life’s journey at this time.
Perhaps there is something you are needing healing prayer for and that is what has brought you to this service this evening.
As I thought about all these associations: slavery, freedom, hope for healing; as I thought about these this week I noticed that one of the Morning prayer readings on Tuesday was from the Acts of the apostles. It’s where the apostle Peter had been put in prison and then a stranger, who Peter later recognises as an Angel, leads him out of prison to freedom. It was the passage that inspired Charles Wesley to write the hymn ‘And can it be’ with the line ‘my chains fell off my heart was free.’
Commenting on that passage from Acts, Lucy Winkett suggests that we can be awestruck by the miraculous way in which that happened; but in a more down to earth way, stories in the Bible about God sending Angels to help us can also remind us that we are never alone.
Perhaps in a similar way the children of Israel were awestruck by the fact that the river Jordan dried up so that they could cross the river. But maybe what they also needed to know, deep down, was the very human reassurance that they were not alone.
Joshua certainly needed to know that because when he was first commissioned we read, in chapter 1 verse 9 that the Lord said to him: ‘Do not be frightened or dismayed for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go’
And certainly the Ark of the Covenant that the priests were carrying was a very concrete and visible reassurance that the people were not alone. It was a visible representation of the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants.
God would journey with them across the River Jordan.
But what about us? Do we always have that inner sense of never being on our own, that God goes with us wherever we go? As I have said before, the journey can be hard. Where might God be in that journey for us? Perhaps at the present time that might be a difficult question for some of us to answer.
It will perhaps be obvious that people don’t come for counselling when the going is easy. Whether or not they have a faith, it is usually because they are needing someone to journey with them through the difficulties they are encountering – thoughts, feelings, memories, past hurts that are coming to the surface that remain unresolved, or feeling overwhelmed with their present circumstances.
There are many different approaches to therapy, or indeed for other different helping relationships, but many would simply say that the overall goal is to help people to help themselves.
Here in the Healing and counselling centre we express it in terms of helping people to grow in relation to themselves, to others and to God. So where might God actually be in that; in helping people to help themselves?
This week I watched a TV programme about survivors. In it two people who were maimed in the 7/7 bombings in London described their long journey through suffering to recovery. One was now a paralympian, the other was working to stop people being radicalised to join terrorist groups.
The presenter described their journey to recovery as a triumph of the human spirit. Perhaps that description – ‘triumph of the human spirit’ – might at first hearing seem to have nothing to do with God. But I would suggest to you it has everything to do with God. For the bible tells us that we are all created by God, we are all made in the image of God; this is our Original Blessing.
Because of our wrongdoings it is a broken image. But as Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it: We were originally ‘made for Goodness’ and as the Psalmist said we are wonderfully and fearfully made.
When we seek healing, when we are called to help others or to ask for help for ourselves, we can know that God designed us to do just that, and to discover the resources we have, to do that.
So travelling through difficult times ourselves, or in helping others who are on this journey, we can hope for healing. And holding on to that hope for ourselves and for others is an important part of any healing journey.
For some Christians on that journey, healing of past hurts gradually comes when they discover that Christ also suffered with them when they suffered. Jesus who went through psychological and emotional agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, who suffered beyond anything humanly imaginable on the cross – Jesus also suffers with them.
Some of these people have published the story of their painful journey towards the healing of past hurts and abuse. One of them wrote this:
‘I discovered that Christ was there in the pit with me, sharing my isolation and pain. And I continue to discover him present in the midst of my moments of darkness.
God, through the wounded, dying, risen Christ is right in it, mucking along with me, sharing the murky blackness and the muddied waters of my pain and because he is there something changes.’
This writer found meaning in her suffering, the realisation that Jesus wasn’t there on the sidelines, Jesus suffered with her. And this meaning eventually changed the direction of her life.
The bible tells us that God created each one of us, and that our Creator loves each one of us with an unfailing and everlasting love.
The ultimate outpouring of that love for us is incarnated in God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
St Paul describes that outpouring of God’s love for us in terms of Christ emptying himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
In that emptying, Christ then willingly takes into himself, and thus identifies with, all our human joys and sorrows. Putting it simply God understands everything we are going through because he has already been there.
We can put our hope for healing in that outpouring of God’s love for us in Christ, for as both our Faith and psychological therapy would agree upon, it is ultimately love that heals.
So finally this evening, my prayer for all of us comes from Psalm 33 v 22
May your unfailing love rest upon us, O Lord
Even as we put our hope in you