Psalm 23 and Luke 17:11-19
Will you pray with me, May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Before I became a Pastor, I worked for many years with Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. One Friday afternoon a young woman and her preschool aged child walked into the administrative offices. The woman spoke little English, but was able to make it clear to the receptionist, who was in the midst of packing up for the day, that she and her child had nowhere to go.
I was serving as Director of the Family Team at the time, so the receptionist called my office saying that there were some people who needed to see me. As I rounded the door from my office, wondering who had stopped in this late in the day, my eyes fell on the woman and the child. My heart sank. It was clear their need was great. A large plastic bag, which I was sure was filled with what little they had, was evidence of that need, not to mention the mixture of what I saw as pain, shame and fear that filled the mothers and the daughter’s eyes.
Most of the other staff had gone home by this time, it was late and I needed to be going as well, but here was a woman and child who suddenly seemed to have become my responsibility. I felt heavy with the impossibility of the situation. Did I mention it was late on Friday?! All the rooms in the family shelters would have been taken by now. There might be a few emergency community beds still open but that would be a long shot. I felt overwhelmed and though I am not proud of it, even a bit resentful that this woman’s problem was quickly becoming my own.
I must have had a dark cloud over my head as I walked back to my office to make some half-hearted phone calls, for when my supervisor, Barry Bock, who was on his way out of his own office, saw me heading back to mine, he asked me what was up. I told about the situation, that I was going to make some phone calls but that I was pretty sure nothing would come of it.
He listened, and after a moment or two he smiled a smile that I found completely out of synch with the gravity of the situation at hand, and then he said — “You know Stacy, just because you do not know how something is going to end, is never reason not to begin.”
With that, he walked out to the reception area, sat down beside the woman and took her hand in his own. He greeted the child so enthusiastically that her worried little face gave way to a broad smile. He began talking with the mother. And even though he too did not speak the language she spoke, within a matter of minutes, he had learned that the mother and her daughter had not eaten all day.
Turning to me and dispatching me to the hospital cafeteria to bring back two hot meals he said — “This is where it begins.”
Our story from Luke is one of many healing accounts in the Gospels that speak of people who find themselves in impossible situations. A woman has been hemorrhaging for 12 years (Luke 5:43-48) and has spent all she has on doctors that are unable to help her. Friends of a paralyzed man are so desperate that they remove a section of the roof and lower him into the room where Jesus is teaching. (Luke 5: 17-20) A blind beggar, sitting at the edge of the road is told to be quiet, but calls out even more insistently. (Mark 10: 46-52). The Gospels are full of people who are facing insurmountable odds with no clear way through.
So it is in the scripture for today. As Jesus leaves the town through which he had passed, he comes upon ten lepers. Infected with a dreaded and deadly skin disease, the ten had been forced from their homes, separated from their families and made to live on the outskirts of town. These ten were feared, and lived a life of isolation and condemnation. These ten found themselves in an impossible situation.
But instead of being silent and sidelined, they did what the people in the Gospels who find themselves in impossible situations with no clear solutions to do. Upon seeing Jesus, they summoned their faith and they began. They have no idea what will come of it. There are no guarantees. They had been rejected and met so many dead-ends in their lives, but this time somehow they summon the courage to step out, cry out, reach out to the one the people call Jesus, this this healer, and prophet who some were even calling the “Son of God.”
And when the healing they sought actually happen, after the impossible has occurred, what does Jesus say? What does he say to the hemorrhaging woman, to the man who was lowered through the roof, to blind Bartemaeus and to the one leper who returned to give thanks? Jesus says “Your faith has made you well.”
“Your faith has made you well.” I have always puzzled at that phrase. What does it mean? In the wake of so much heartache that is showing up on the doorstep of our lives these days, it seems to me that faith is needed more than ever. But what is this faith of which Jesus speaks? Where is it found? How do we find it for ourselves and our time?
For many faith is another word for belief. For many it is not possible to be a person of faith unless one is wholeheartedly able to profess one’s belief in God.
I think, however, that faith and belief are actually quite distinct. I think that faith can be very much present when belief is not. Faith is putting your trust into something even when you don’t really know what will happen or where the path will lead. This kind of faith can seem like foolishness to the world but is the faith I am convinced that made the lepers cry out to Jesus and that opened the way for their healing. Faith is the amalgamation of trust, hope, longing, desire and a yearning to reach out into something that cannot yet fully be seen but that deep in one’s bones, one hope is possible.
Two years ago, Mark and I walked the Camino de Santiago, an ancient 500 mile pilgrimage across northern Spain. In many ways, walking the camino was a lesson in faith. We would start the day not really knowing where we would eat that day, or where we would sleep at the days end. We would start each day, not really knowing exactly where we were going. But we would start nonetheless. We’d walk to where the first yellow arrow or scallop shell pointed and then to the next and then to the next. And as we did the Way opened before us. This is what the life of faith is. It is really not knowing where we are going. It is not really being sure that we have the capacity to do all that may be asked of us and yet faith means setting out nonetheless.
I have also often heard that doubt is the opposite of faith. I don’t think that is true. I think doubt and faith are first cousins and fast friends. What I think is the opposite of faith is apathy. That is what I was feeling when the woman appeared in that office so long ago. I was feeling apathy, and resignation, accepting the impossibility of things before I even began.
If Barry had let me give into my apathy, I would never have experienced the joy of walking with Barry, this mother and child, when many months later, we and many others who came along side us ended up at the door of a church in Roxbury that just so happed to have an apartment in their parish house and just so happened to be looking for someone to help with some cleaning and hospitality in exchange for that lodging. Turns out that not knowing how something is going to end, is indeed no reason not to begin.
We are facing many great needs in the world right now and we may feel overwhelmed and unsure where it all is going to end. Apathy and resignation, despair and condemnation are nipping at our heels. We need each other to remind us, that when we feel overwhelmed and discouraged, to not give up, but instead to turn our faces towards the horizon line of our time with faith.
So let us take the others hand in ours, let us greet the wary and wounded with warmth, let us do what we can to bring a hot meal to one who is hungry. Let our uncertainty at being able to see where it is all going to end, not keep us from a willingness to simply begin. And let us trust that if we do, one day, we too may very well hear those wonderful words “Your faith has made you, and all whose lives you have touched, — well.”
May it be so! Thanks be to the one who shows us The Way. Amen.