A couple of years ago Jan and I found ourselves driving to New York City. That April was a rainy month, and that Friday was a rainy morning. Jan had left school, suddenly, and I had left church, suddenly. Jan left preparations for the spring concert. I left a major financial meeting and that morning’s unexpected offer of another job. When it rains it pours. We were racing down the Thruway, from Rochester to Manhattan. We were hurrying toward a hospital on the lower east side of Manhattan. We had just been told that a close friend of ours was about to die.
Our friend had been with her daughter, and other high school students, on a trip to New York. She had volunteered to chaperone that spring’s high school trip. The group had spent a rainy week in museums and restaurants and theaters. Her heart gave out on the last night of the trip.
We know that the heart is an organ, or as we might now put it in the monistic materialist language of our time, ‘just an organ’. It is just an organ, one of the many bodily organs, just a body, one of the many human bodies that crowd this teeming, warming planet. When it gives out, it gives out. But that is not what you think or see when a young mother, a devoted wife, a caring neighbor, a creative friend, a music teacher, a person of faith, someone you care for, lies dying. Then a heart is more than just an organ. It is a heart.
Cell phone equipped, we stayed in hourly contact to the bedside. A dear friend, and heart doctor himself, a heart doctor with a heart, had gone down earlier, and was keeping vigil. We know that anyone born is old enough to die. You qualify, to die, once you are born. There is no other age requirement. We know this. We know it when a college student dies. Yet we do not know it. We know it when a high school student dies. Yet we do not know it. We know it when one of our own children dies. Yet we do not know it. We know it when a friend dies. Yet we do not know it. There is a part of us that is pretty certain that death happens to other people than we, to people older than we, to people unrelated by kinship or friendship. So it comes with a wallop and a shock to hear the summons: “Come now. You may be too late”.
The Thruway is a good road in the rain. Crossing the George Washington Bridge, we had some hopeful news. Somehow she had stabilized. We hurried on. We found some sort of parking, and some sort of meal, and some sort of lodging. Then we sat around the crowded bedside. She awoke. We prayed. We listened. We sang a couple of hymns. One nurse sang with us. Another listened along with us. Our friend asked, quizzed the nurse about her church life. It was a compelling setting for that quizzing, and it made a compelling impact. By evening, it looked like she was going to make it. Somehow. I still do not know how. Maybe no one really does. It came time for lights out. We made ready to go. Our friend gestured, and whispered to us. Wonthrydo. Jan could not make it out. I could not. Her husband could not. The heart doctor could not. Wonthrydo. She was insistent but incoherent. I made a mental note comparing that to some preaching. She was adamant but unintelligible. Again, like some sermons you will have heard. Wonthrydo.
The rain had lifted by the time we walked across town to our hotel. A heart attacked had been healed. But we could not hear her voice, or at least the meaning of her voice. Then right in the middle of one great avenue her husband stopped, oblivious of traffic. In midtown Manhattan, in the middle of the avenue, he raised his arms to the heavens. He smiled. He realized what she was saying. That happens sometimes in marriage. You know what the other is saying. You know what the other is thinking, even when the words are muffled. That happens in friendship, partnership and marriage. Sometimes that is a good thing.
Her husband caught her meaning. Wonthrydo. We had been singing hymns. She is a church organist, pianist. She loves hymns. She has a favorite hymn. Actually, we all were quite aware of it, because she regularly asked for it to be sung. In a hymn sing or informal service or around the piano after dinner, whenever there was a chance to pick a hymn, she picked hers. It was not one of those familiar favorite hymns like Amazing Grace or Abide With Me or When the Roll is Called Up Yonder. But it was hers. 1-3-2. He got it. 1-3-2. Wonthrydo. Back from death, she was asking us to sing her favorite hymn for her. 1-3-2. The next morning we did. And she nodded. It was a moment of heart and voice.
We have just sung 1-3-2, “All my hope is firmly grounded.”
There is more than enough death that comes when you least expect it. When those fewer moments arrive, though, and death does not come though you most expect it, your heart is in your throat, and you have heart and voice.
Whether or not Luke was a doctor, let alone a heart doctor, we know he was a person of heart. Luke brings shepherds to the manger. Luke remembers every parable he has heard and some, let us suggest, that he has not heard. Luke remembers people. I hear little Fred Craddock and his stringy voice when I read Luke. Craddock liked to ask preachers: ‘where are all the people?’ He would lament sermons that were full of words and ideas and sin and atonement and transgression and salvation, but without population. Luke was a Craddock preacher. He remembered the people. Another Samaritan along a deserted road. A crazy, dishonest manager. A woman hunting for a coin. A man hunting for a sheep. A boy running up the road to his dad. A dad running down the road to his boy. A tax collector up a tree. In more ways than one. And ten lepers healed, and one leper well.
Did you catch that? Ten healed. One well. I hear little Fred Craddock and his wily voice when I read Luke. Craddock liked to surprise. Luke was that kind of writer. Seeds somehow flowering at 100 fold. Feet on top of water. Thousands fed, and none hungry. And right here, a little surprise for the hearer. All the ten are healed. Then one returns to offer thanks. Jesus says, which makes no sense, ‘your faith has made you well’. No, Jesus has healed them, according to the story. The story is made out to allow the one healed to acknowledge healing and to praise God. Yet Jesus says his faith has healed him. I mean made him well. I mean healed him. I mean made him well. Wait a minute. Let me read that passage again.
I understand inspiration, in Scripture and in Life, to be just the right word at just the right moment in just the right way. Often enough, that is the Scripture’s way with us. So it is Scripture, and so it is Holy. It carries that pragmatic function. It works. Like truth, it happens. Dear St. Luke has rifled through his verbal vocabulary for us in 17: 11-19. There are four key verbs. He could have used one size to fit all. Lord heal us…They were healed…He saw he was healed…Your faith has healed you. That is NOT what Luke wrote. He wrote, and meant, something else. So first the lepers say ‘Have mercy’. We hear the same word in our Kyrie—eleison: have mercy. Second, the lepers are cleansed. If your name is Katherine, you are cleansed, clean. That is our word here: made clean. Third, one fellow deeply understands, appreciates his new condition. He is healed. Here the word is a simple word for cure. All these three are verbs in the punctiliar Greek tense called the aorist. But behind door number four there is yet another verb. You will recognize its sound as well. Before I reveal it let me also tell you that it is in the perfect tense, a tense somewhat different in Greek than in English, a bit ‘narrower’ as Dr. Wenham says. The perfect in English slides all over the place. In Greek it means just this: “a present state resulting from a past action”. It is an existential condition running on into the present and future. It is a powerful, strong tense. It is grammatical good news. The verb is not eleson, nor ekatherisan, nor iathe. It is sowdso, and it means ‘saved’, made whole, made holy, made healthy, made well. It is a gigantic verb. Our words—soteriology—salvation—come from it. It is what life is all about, being well, being made well. To receive this wellness is why we come to church, why we listen to sermons, why we sing hymns, why we offer our prayers. It is the meaning of life. Luke the physician has become Luke the metaphysician. And suddenly the passage makes sense.
Luke is trying to improve further on the same story Mark reported in Mark 1:40 and Luke himself already told once in Luke 5:12. He has bigger fish to fry this time. It is one thing to be healed. It is another to be well. Luke loves surprises. In that way, he is like the great, true gospel, that of John. For John, the miracles (signs) are all calls to faith. Surprise. For John, the miracles are to no avail if they do not inspire faith. Surprise. For John, the miracles are not really what inspire faith. Surprise. Every healing and wonder, for John, and here for Luke, and surely for us, should be heard under the banner of John 20:21, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe”. Whose faith has made them well.
What is faith?
Faith is courage.
Faith is not just life dressed up in a choir robe. Faith is life, lived. Courage. Courage to start courage to change courage to choose courage to be courage to speak…Faith is courage. The gift of God. Faith is the courage to sing with the voice of what has happened in the heart. It is the experience of really being alive.
Today faith is pictured face down in the mud. Nose down in the dirt, our grateful leper, with still gnarled fingers and still soiled tunic and still scarred psyche, has found his voice. He has found a way to say what is what. To speak. That is courage.
You know that courage is a matter of the heart. That is what the word means. ‘Cour’. Courage is heart, and voice. It is the condition of being that gives way to utterance. It is the consequence of healing or of any other deep experience, which then becomes voice. Courage is vocalized healing.
Somehow, our friend, hospitalized on Manhattan, was healed. 1-3-2 made her well. It was the utterance, the speech, the voice of faith which, according to the full Gospel of John, and to this portion of Luke 17, made her well. Heart is made for voice. Heart becomes heart when it is singing. The other nine may have been healed but they were not yet well. I have confidence that one day and in their own time they were. Their faith made them well one day as well.
It is a surprising thing to be surprised on a Sunday by a surprising passage. What heals is not what makes one well. It is when the heart is healed and the voice is lifted that one is made well.
Has a cat got your tongue?
Your life is meant to speak. Parker Palmer’s book is still readable, ‘Let Your Life Speak’. Face down in the mud, someday, healed and humbled, someday, clothing still soiled, someday, the gnarled effects of hard living to show for it, someday, you may find your voice. “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice, and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks”.
Your life is meant to speak. Sometimes it is after, or only after, the most bitter of moments face down in the mud, that heart gives way to voice. I always cringe a little, preaching on healing passages. I think of so many I have known in thirty pastoral years whose loved ones did not find healing. It is important to hear about heart AND voice, about being healed AND being made well. Mr. Coffin said after his son died that he spent the next spring enjoying every single bud, every single flower, every single sunlit morning, every single beautiful thing. Both gain and loss bring heart. Do you see? I mean, do you see without seeing? Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet…It is the courage of faith, or the faith of courage, that makes well. Not the healing, or at least not the healing alone. Faith gives meaning, in heart and voice, whether or not there is healing, and moreso when there is not.
Your life is meant to speak. Our leper discovered that face down at Jesus’ feet. Bill Coffin discovered that face down in loss. Al Gore discovered that face down in dangling chads. Doris Lessing discovered that face down in sexism. Andrew Bacevich speaks for a whole country which has discovered that face down in Iraq. Our congregation discovers that face down in the slugfest of every week, and gives it voice every Sunday—introit, hymn, kyrie, anthem, Gloria, hymn, Gloria, response, hymn, benediction. Your faith has made you well.
Your life is meant to speak. I believe that our church is discovering this face down in the ruins of our current condition. I will not refer today to the emptiness of our collapsing churches. Look rather simply at the ranks of the Protestant clergy. Clergy were once the healthiest people in any profession, in the top 5%. Now, as a group, we are in bottom 5%. We gained weight, aged, lost teeth, picked up cholesterol, and forgot to exercise. “Jesus Master have mercy on us”, we rightly cry. It is a cry of the heart. Just there, in the cri de cour, is the dawn, the morning light of healing. There is another day coming. We will need most those young women and men who can see what they cannot see, who can see across the ridge up ahead, and hold out and hold on for a brighter day, and praise God with a loud voice!
Your life is meant to speak. This is what Paul Tillich’s voice meant to another generation: "The faith which makes the courage of despair possible is the acceptance of the power of being, even in the grip of nonbeing. Even in the despair about meaning being affirms itself through us. The act of accepting meaninglessness is in itself a meaningful act. It is an act of faith... The vitality that can stand the abyss of meaninglessness is aware of a hidden meaning within the destruction of meaning…Absolute faith, or the state of being grasped by the God beyond God, is not a state which appears beside other states of the mind. It never is something separated and definite, an event which could be isolated and described. It is always a movement in, with, and under other states of mind. It is the situation on the boundary of man's possibilities. It is this boundary. Therefore it is both the courage of despair and the courage in and above every courage. It is not a place where one can live, it is without the safety of words and concepts, it is without a name, a church, a cult, a theology. But it is moving in the depth of all of them. It is the power of being, in which they participate and of which they are fragmentary expressions."
Your life is meant to speak. In that spirit, recognizing that truth, a thousand students showed up yesterday to great the Nobel prize winner of last year, Mohammed Yunus, who saves poor folks, one $15 loan at a time. Little changes, over time, added together, make a difference.
Your life is meant to speak. Few remember Ernest Fremont Tittle today. Yet his interpretations of Luke, in pulpit and commentary, remain some of the finest: “We take for granted a tradition of unselfish devotion and service that stems from the life and love of Christ, and accept as a matter of course things done for us daily by others”. (p 187, Commentary).
Your life is meant to speak. We invited those so moved to pray and discern with us about the needs of Iraqi refugees. Many have done so. One spoke, with healed heart and vibrant voice. Our forum has been the Dean’s blog. Here is the courageous voice of an anonymous person of faith: I would be interested in participating in some way with refugees from Iraq. Perhaps as an individual, perhaps as a representative from my church in Lowell. Thanks for bringing this message and potential action. I know there must be many "practical" issues with moving forward on this, however it has struck a spot inside me. I feel that as a US citizen I am responsible for the plight of these folk and there is the possibility for some healing if I can contribute.
Your life is meant to speak. Can you hear that? It begs to be heard!
Heart and voice. Heart and voice. In the April rain, on the fourth floor of a New York hospital, there once was a curious sound and sight. Our friend had by grace been given back her heart, given her heart again. It is one thing to be healed, another to be made well. The latter evokes a voice. That morning, one agnostic nurse, one overworked doctor, one heart doctor, two frightened daughters, one real friend, one unmusical preacher and one bed ridden patient, all face down at the very edge of death and life, found their voice. Wonthrydo. 1-3-2 is what they sang. For all I know about time and eternity, that sort of time may be kept in a lasting bottle somewhere.
All my hope is firmly grounded
In the great and living Lord
Who whenever I most need him
Never fails to keep his word
God I must wholly trust
God the ever good and just