One wishes that the outset of our gospel were not so utterly contemporary. There are Sundays when it might be a comfort to listen to a lesson that seems utterly innocuous—something about the Jebusites, or the seventh heaven, or camels and loincloths. But here we have an utterly familiar scene, familiar anyway to the remaining readers of remaining front pages of remaining newspapers. A city street. A crowd gathered. A mother who is a widow. The mother’s only son. And he, dead. In all the cities of our residence, over thirty years, New York, Syracuse, Montreal, Rochester, Boston, this story has been, and still is, once the weather gets warmer, regular front page news.
One wonders how those to whom healing has not come receive a gospel lesson like today’s gospel lesson. For healing of the sort provided here, sudden and miraculous, a raising from the very dead, is not routinely a part of our experience. In fact, you and I have not ever seen a man really dead suddenly and really sit up and speak. When healing comes, it comes not like this. And often it does not come. One thinks of those women and men, who have prayed and hoped for healing for their loved ones, and it did not come. A reading like ours might feel like salt in the wound, a needless rhetorical cruelty.
One ponders, even more pointedly, how those whose religion celebrates healing, for whom salvus (health) is the heart of salvation, might receive this kind of story, if in their own experience, the experience has been otherwise. Healing sought that does not come. One imagines a woman in Westfield, whose son is permanently buried, or a man in Marlboro whose wife is permanently disabled, or a daughter in Worcester whose parents are gone and not coming back. And if these three and others had also grown up with a sacramentalism that was revealed as untrustworthy by brute experience? And if these three and others had also grown up with a literalism that was revealed as untrustworthy by brute experience? What then? What would these religious words repeated today sound like?
What is the point of a healing remembered, when so often healing does not come? How are you going to hear gospel, assuming your experience, which is our shared common experience, of loss, grief, sickness to death, dream deferred, and healing that does not always come? What is the point of such a story, such a memory, such a history? How shall we preach about a healing remembered in the midst of so much experience of healing rescinded? The pain, the bruising reminder, of a healing that did not come can last a lifetime. The increased pain in that pain, the wound salt, of misguided religion—literal Biblicism, magical sacramentalism— can take more than a generation to remove from a family system.
Let us together give our Gospel a moment to respond, in a way that fits the reading’s own intention. We are right to analyze and criticize and demythologize our Holy Scriptures—they can take it. But we also want to give space for the Holy Scripture to analyze us and criticize us and demythologize us. To listen, in other words, to the Word. In our lesson today, healing remembered becomes memory healed. Healing remembered is in the service of memory healed. The account is recalled as a way of remembering again who we are meant to be, who you really are.
Our lesson from Luke is modeled after the longer reading made earlier from 1 Kings. There too, a widow. There too, a son. There too, a healing. There too, a proof of prophetic power. There too, at the climax, ‘he gave him to his mother’. There too, a word about a Word, a word of truth. In the Old Testament lesson, as in the New Testament Gospel, the healing is remembered as a part of the spreading of the word, a word of truth, that sets things right again, and that sets us on our right path again. Like Elijah, Jesus heals, and the healing is remembered. Here we have a clue to the point of a healing remembered.
For the community of faith, this one healing does not eclipse all of the others that did not come, that do not come, that have not come in the desired mode. How could it? After all, even all of the wonderfully typical compassion of the Lukan Jesus, who saw, had compassion, touched, spoke and made right, happens, let the reader understand, at sunset, in the twilight, under the shadow of the coming Cross. The healer is the crucified, from whom no pain and no hurt and no failure, and no loss are kept. On his way to the cross, Jesus has compassion. On his way to powerless failure, Jesus shows a healing power. His resurrection power is remembered even in the shadow of the cross.
Here there is something unexpected which unexpectedly occurs. Life can be like that, and that is good. Here there is something which stitches together family sundered and life ended. Here there is a mission, a desire, a thrust into the future. We come to church, listen for the word, and receive the sacrament, for just such a moment of memory, right remembrance, reclaimed. This one healing—a great joy and wondrous gift, however it may have happened—is meant to teach us, to remind us, that we are a part of the healing work in the world. We have something to learn from this, something to recall. The recollection is offered for all—healed and hurt, well and ill, recovered and removed. In some ways it is meant especially for those whose first dreams have been deferred, and for those whose initial hopes have been disappointed. Today, that may be you. In healing rightly remembered, our memory is rightly healed, and we have the chance again to be who we are meant to be, healers. Healers who remember that sometimes surprising, unexpected, good things happen. Healers who are not willing to give up on hope for what is not yet seen. Healers who relish the chance to heal, and be healed. Healers who recall the long parade of healing, with Jesus in the midst –the Great Physician. Healers who see in moments of health a sign of God’s loving presence in the world, ready and willing to heal and make new.
One wonders if there has ever been a time that more needed such a word, such a healing remembered bringing memory healed. Police battling city street crime need that memory. Diplomats battling the urge and surge to war need that memory. Discouraged engineers battling the deep cut into the earth gushing oil into the future need that memory. Spouses of those with tough diagnoses need that memory. In remembering past healing, we learn something -–something saving and true–about ourselves.
Lee Woodruff spoke for an hour in April, just down the street, about a healing remembered. Those who heard her left in tears because our memory was healed. Lee is a journalist, married to Bob Woodruff, who is a journalist, too, a national television anchor man. Bob nearly died in Iraq, coming home in a deep coma, with near fatal head trauma. Lee spoke at the Sargent School, our college for physical therapy. She told the future healers her story…in order to remind them of who they are meant to become. She related her terror and fear a a young mother with a husband whose wounds seemed incurable. She described the day by day routine of visiting a comatose spouse, 35 days with no response. She critically witnessed about those, mainly doctors, who spoke only of the worst possible outcomes: ‘the nurses were truer, saying that no one knew, but they had seen cases of healing’.
She was reminding by remembering. Her healing remembered became memory healed: Illness affects a whole family not just a patient. Do not be afraid to offer hope. Give information slowly. Touch him like
a person. Rub his feet. Keep the whole family in view. Tell it like it is.
And. Have faith. Faith is not some icky, scary, non-PC thing. It is one of the tools in recovery. Recognize that things happen randomly, that there is not a set plan whereby all things occur. Yet believe that God’s desire is for healing, healing in every setting, in every trauma, in every illness.
Lee read him letters that came from all over the country. Day after day. No response. One letter came from Bruce Springsteen. She added a few sentences of her own to what was written, saying that Bob was invited when better to go on stage and play with E-street band. No response.
Then on the 36th morning of his coma, following her usual swim and Starbucks stop, Lee Woodruff walked in to find her husband sitting up and saying, ‘Hi Lee, where have you been?’
For months later they battled aphasia. One day he gestured with his arms, not remembering the word for guitar, but making the motions. ‘Why do you want a guitar?’ ‘To get ready to play with Springsteen’, he replied. And today he has almost fully recovered. But the burden of her sermon, and it was such, a powerful sermon which might have had as its text Luke 7:11, was to remind us that we all and we each have some role in healing. You are meant to be healers. You were baptized into the community of healing. You have grown up to faith in a tradition of healing. You are those who are hopeful for healing. You gather regularly around a simple table, to share the bread and the cup, to taste the new wine of memory healed, which is today announced in the account of a healing remembered.
Dean of Marsh Chapel