Our Shared Reality: Preaching on Illness (Part 1 of 2)

Emilie Bouvier, "Bandaged." (Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, North Shore, MN)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Last summer after a car accident, an x-ray revealed that I have a brain tumor, essentially terminal in nature. Has this fact sharpened how I listen to proclamation? Definitely!

It means I am more alert to the ways preachers choose to speak about disease, illness, and their meanings and relationship to an ongoing life of faith and service. Often the sermons I hear, based on texts that reference illnesses, avoid this complex topic altogether.

I also wonder if those preachers who know of my slow dying consider folks like me in sermon preparation. Illness and disease undoubtedly affects proclamation, its preparation, and reception by listeners.

We live in a society that increasingly talks about illness and about those who experience the health care crisis in varying ways, such as suffering the ravages of dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, or cancer. All this makes congregations indeed receptive to proclamation that takes illness and its impact seriously.

The topic of illness is quite difficult homiletically since any wise preacher will attempt to anticipate listeners’ adjacent concerns and consider how to respond in the brief period of a sermon to the inevitable questions:

  • Does God heal illnesses?
  • Is my illness a punishment for my sins?
  • Why does God allow the suffering of illness?
  • Are the biblical stories of Jesus healing people to be trusted if I seek Jesus’ healing in my life?
  • What is the difference between being healed and being cured?

Given these difficulties, why preach about illness at all? There are several approaches that preachers can consider in response to this important question. First, preaching about illness acknowledges that humanity is unavoidably afflicted by various forms of illness different times during a lifetime. Second, in the phrase of the old hymn, “the Bible tells me so.” The witness of many scriptural passages refers to illness. Parishes following the appointed texts of the Revised Common Lectionary offer preachers an ample array of text choices from both Old and New Testaments for the liturgical year. One can find multiple references to illness through the actions, touch, and words of Jesus’ healing and the witness of those who saw Jesus’ healing acts — as well as the sometimes mixed responses of community members who witness the healing of those healed by Jesus.

Other preachers might choose their own preaching texts, which they think are especially suited to the needs of the congregation, or if time allows, the preacher should even consider doing an introductory sermon series on illness from a scriptural perspective, considering texts like James 5: 13-16, 1 Peter 5:9-11, Matthew 11:28-30, or Matthew 9:18-26. Pastoral listening to how parishioners speak of illness, their own or that of others, offers important insights for effective sermon preparation. The preacher must also exercise pastoral alertness to how listeners speak of illness and what that insight can yield for sermonic material.

For example, which metaphors do members use when discussing their experiences with illness and disease — their own and others? Do they describe it as an enemy? God’s punishment? A sign of evil in the world? Often, in the case of chronic illness, it might be described as a long, arduous journey. In my own experience with cancer to date, cancer is a thief who robs the individual at every level of life: personal, physical, emotional, and financial (to name a few losses) and some of the attempted thefts are frighteningly spiritual in nature.

Since Scripture notes Jesus’ many encounters with illness and disease of various kinds and his responses to them, preachers should give significant attention to the relationship of the divine and human found at the nexus of illness. That can mean a strongly preached Christology.

In Part 2 of this series, “Preaching on Illness: Healing Services,” Susan Hedahl deals with theological and practical issues related to healing services.