“Those who are well do not need a physician, but those who are sick.”
We are all of us a mixture of both health and sickness, really. But it is our health that we mostly value. And understandably so – sickness is not something we want to endure, or to have within us. Physical sickness is unpleasant, painful, sometimes terrifying, and sometimes also extremely boring. It is something which narrows us down, flattens our experience into the dull expanse of the world of illness. In theory, we can learn from physical illness, go deeper into our vulnerability, our need for the care of others, the strange joy of receiving that care at kind hands. But for the most part these are things we understand in retrospect. When we are sick, we are mostly just able to be sick.
But of course, it is not physical illness which Jesus is talking about here. The saying comes immediately after his shocking decision to call as a disciple one of the tax-collectors – a collaborator with the occupying Roman forces, a man enmeshed in a profession driven by corruption, greed, intimidation, exploitation. I look at myself and know that I would almost certainly have been one of the people who complained. Lepers and prostitutes, that's one thing, I get that – but people whose very living depends on harming the poor and vulnerable? That is something quite different. Today it might be, let's say, an oil executive. An arms dealer. A corrupt politician. A high-powered corporate bully.
And yet – Levi came. He left his table, he turned. He was capable of that turning. Something within him recognized his sickness as sickness, must always have somehow recognized it, and could reach out for health. He had always been capable – if only there were someone to see that in him, someone who could say to him, “Come. Now. Change. Now,” as if it were possible. And it became then possible, and his world opened up. When we are sick, we are only able to be sick, in that flat world of repetition. But when we turn towards healing, possibility enters once again.
We want to offer our goodness to God; and it's entirely reasonable that we do. Like a child offering a drawing or some cheap scented soap to a beloved parent, we want to give our best gifts, the places where we are strong, the times when we are creative and loving and generous. We do not want to go to God with the sickness of the tax collector in our hands. We do not want to offer our selfishness, our greed, our misery, our compromises. It hurts even to look at these things in ourselves, much less to present them as our offerings. But these must be our gifts, must be in some way our best gifts. We take these bad things, these broken parts of our souls, these knots of spiritual sickness, and we lay them down. We put them before the God who is our physician and our medicine, as honestly as we can, and ask for some kind of healing. Ask that all these things be made, somehow, slowly and strangely, into something better, into something good. And perhaps we will only understand it retrospect, will only see then that the gift we offered became at that moment the gift we were being given.
And at the same time, part of our vocation is to call others to healing; not because we are all better, but just as we are, we hope, being healed ourselves. And sometimes this means calling out the sickness. The God who comes to us where we are failing and broken does not do so in order to leave us exactly where we started, but to make us all stand up from our tables, and turn. And we may need, here and now, to be God's agents in that call. Sometimes it is gentle and personal and individual, but sometimes it means challenge, it means going to those oil executives and saying, this, this societal dependence on fossil fuels, this ravaging of our earth, this privileging of short-term economic gain over the well-being of future generations, this is not good, this is not well, this is not the way of health. But we must do it in the belief that they can indeed change, that we are there not just to reprimand, and never to reject, but to say, as one sick soul to another, that it is not too late. That we can change, that God comes to these parched places, that we can be the repairers of the breach, that we can all heal together. For that great healer who comes for the sick comes, thereby, for us all.
The Reverend Maggie Helwig was appointed priest-in-charge of St. Stephen- in- the- Fields in Toronto in May 2013.
Before her ordination, Maggie worked as a writer, editor, arts organizer, and human rights activist. She spent nearly ten years as an organizer of the Friday Out of the Cold/Out of the Heat meal program, which began at St Stephen’s and is now hosted by St Thomas, Huron Street; she also worked as a parish outreach facilitator for York-Credit Valley, and chairs the diocesan Social Justice and Advocacy Committee. She has published twelve books of poetry, essays and fiction, and her most recent novel, Girls Fall Down (which includes scenes set in a slightly fictionalized St Stephen’s), was shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award in 2009, and chosen as the Toronto Public Library’s One Book Toronto in 2012. She has been the literary editor of Canadian Forum, the co-coordinator of the Toronto Small Press Fair and the associate director of the Scream Literary Festival. Maggie was ordained priest in the Anglican church in January 2012, and has served as the assistant curate at St Timothy’s, North Toronto. She has lived near St Stephen’s for most of her adult life (currently in the Alexandra Park area, a few minutes to the south) and is very excited to be joining the parish as their priest. She hopes to work with the congregation and the community to revitalize their long tradition of engaged urban ministry in the Catholic tradition at St. Stephen- in- the- Fields in Toronto