“We All Need Friends”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
August 6, 2015
Isaiah 35:4-7 & Mark 7:31-37
Prince Albert of Great Britain became King George VI on May 11, 1937, and the highlights of his life were chronicled in the 2010 film, “The King’s Speech”. The movie opens with Prince Albert ascending the stairs at Wembley Stadium to give a speech at the closing of the 1925 British Empire Exhibition. With a kiss from his wife Elizabeth, and a look of blessing from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the prince moves in front of the microphone and all eyes are on him—a little blinking red light tells the Prince that he can began. And he does: “I have received,’ the Prince begins, ‘from his majesty the K…the K…the K…’. A look of dread washes over the Prince’s face; his cheeks turn bright red and he starts to sweat. Elizabeth sighs a little and the Archbishop of Canterbury flashes a look of dismay to those around him. The crowd is viably uncomfortable as Prince Albert eventually makes some headway with his speech, but not without a tremendous amount of effort. The poor prince had a terrible and life-long stuttering problem.
As the movie unfolds, we watch Albert and his faithful wife make visit after visit to doctors and speech therapists. One doctor has the prince put a handful of marbles in his mouth, and the doctor instructs him to speak—if the prince can speak with the marbles in his mouth, he may overcome the stutter. Another doctor suggests that the prince continue to smoke heavily as he did his whole life, suggesting that the nicotine from the tobacco will relax the prince’s vocal chords. Neither of these work. Prince Albert is frustrated all the time. His wife seems self-conscious and equally frustrated. There is a heart-breaking scene where the prince gets down on the floor with his two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, and cannot tell them a bedtime story without starting and stopping at each sentence. To add to the prince’s frustration with his speech impediment, is the anxiety in the air that he might soon become king when his brother steps down.
The prince is in pain, mentally and physically, and Elizabeth took it upon herself to do something about it. In plain clothes, to disguise her royalty, Elizabeth makes a visit to Lionel Logue, a self-proclaimed speech therapist. Elizabeth explains to Logue that her husband suffers from stuttering, and that she would like to employ Logue to help. Logue is hesitant, as any doctor would be, because the person needing treatment is not present. Eventually it is revealed who the patient is and who Elizabeth is, and with a bow and some apologies Logue agrees to treat Prince Albert.
Prince Albert is skeptical when they arrive at Logue’s office; it is dark and dingy, not really a place for royalty. Dr. Logue invites the prince into his exam room and the prince takes a seat on a rough looking sofa. The two stare at each other for a few second. “I believe when speaking to a prince, one waits for the prince to chose the topic” Logue begins. “Waiting for me to commence a conversation,’ the prince fires back, ‘one can wait a rather long wait.” “Do you know any jokes?” Logue asks—“Timing isn't my strong suit.” the prince answers. The two banter back and forth for some time—the prince lights a cigarette and Logue makes him put it out—and they banter until Logue asks the prince, “Well, why are you here?”. You can watch the blood boil up into the prince’s face and he shouts, “Because I bloody well stammer!”. Logue continues to ask questions and the prince gets madder and madder.
What we see in Prince Albert in the movie points to the truth that living with a disability, physical or mental or otherwise, is a source of great pain and aguish. Suffering from a speech impediment must be painful beyond belief considering that human beings are vocal creatures—everything we do involves the way we speak. But think about other disabilities like the inability to walk without assistance, blindness, the inability to hear, or challenges that make it difficult for children or adults to learn. Since human beings are all about speech and mobility and learning and growing, anything that stands in the way of that or prevents it, is painful. We often call these ‘problems’, and problems must be fixed. Unfortunately, though, human society has often dealt with these ‘problems’ by shutting people away, out of sight and out of mind, either in homes or in hospitals. It has only been in the last two decades that we have learned the best ways to interact with and care for people with disabilities, keeping in mind the value and beauty of every life.
In the gospel lesson today Jesus arrives in Tyre and meets a man who has a lot in common with Prince Albert. Mark tells us that the man was deaf and had a speech impediment, so like Prince Albert the man must have suffered a certain amount of pain and aguish in his life. The place where Jesus meets the man is called the Decapolis, which was the main meeting place for ten major cities in the Roman empire. This place would have been crazy! Trade and commerce, people selling everything imaginable, families on holiday, government workers going about official business. Imagine what it was like for this man to be in the very center of Roman life, unable to speak and hear. Jesus takes the man aside from the madness all around, puts his fingers in his ears, spits on his tongue, looks up to heaven and sighs, “Be open”. Immediately the man’s ears are opened and his tongue is released so that he can hear and speak freely. Jesus tells the man and everyone around to not say anything about him—Jesus always wanted the attention to be on God, not on himself.
Now the man in the gospel and Prince Albert have something else in common: they both had friends. It is not terribly clear who the ‘they’ are in the gospel who brought the deaf man to Jesus, but there was a group of them and they begged Jesus for help. Sounds a lot like Queen Elizabeth when she visited Lionel Logue on behalf of King George. In both situations, someone was suffering and others noticed. Those others were friends, a wife; they could be a co-worker, a neighbor, a pastor, a stranger. When these people noticed the suffering of another, they immediately went to someone who could offer help. For Prince Albert that someone was a speech therapist; for the man in the gospel, that someone is Jesus. These friends, these fellow companions on the journey of life, are the catalyst, the turning point, the reason healing took place. We all need friends.
Friendship has taken sort of a weird turn over the last ten years. Social media makes it possible to be ‘friends’ with people across the world or folks we’ve met only once. I think digital friendship like this has numbed us to the true essence and purpose of friendship. I know, for me, something like Facebook makes me lazy in keeping up with people who are truly important and valuable in my life. The more we go digital, especially with something like friendship, the less we are true friends to one another. If you and I can loosely keep up with friends by checking a computer, how likely are we to engage in face-to-face interactions with, the type of interactions that can really change people? If we limit our friendships with people to what can be done on a phone or a computer, can the Jesus of our faith really come through us and offer healing to the world?
Christian faith is about incarnation, about being embodied. Jesus came into this world in a body, in the body of a baby, revealing to us the very real, very intimate personality of God. The writer of Hebrews begins by saying that in the past God spoke to us through prophets and sages, kings and queens, but most recently spoke to us by a Son. In God’s estimation of things, words, quick interactions, loose relationship were not enough—God had do something more powerful. So God sent Jesus to take on the frail frame of humanity in order to bring us back to God. This set a pattern for the life of every Christian. The way we interact with the world, the relationships we sustain, the friendships we foster, all should come from a place of embodiment, incarnation. To be a friend means to be presence, fully, with another person. This is the only way to true relationships, to true friendship. Friendship in Christian faith is a flesh and blood, face-to-face way of life.
And we all need friends. Every one of us here today needs friends. We need friends to travel with on the strange and beautiful road of life. We need friends who can identify with us when the blessings are raining down or when the suffering is too much to handle. We need friends who know what we look like on good days and on bad, who accept us for what we are no matter what. We need friends who share their faith with us when our faith is weak, who can witness to the power of resurrection when we are stuck in an unending Good Friday. We need friends who see our needs, who feel our pain and our anguish, who take us to Jesus so that he can stick his fingers in our ears and pray, “Be opened”. We all need friends, and by God’s mercy and goodness, we have those friends around us today.
I don’t know the details of your life, what makes you tick, what causes you pain, what brings you joy. But I do know that each one of us experiences the pain and joy that life brings, and that all of us need healing in one way or another. Whether it is from some disability, a failed relationship, or failed dreams, we all need healing. Whether it is from a the scourge of addiction, abuse at the hands of another, or tragedy stacked to the heavens, we all need healing. And though I don’t know exactly where you are right now, I can all but guarantee there is someone else here today in the same exact place. That is the beauty of the Church, in this place and throughout the world—it is packed with people who know. It is packed with people who know what life is like, how it builds up and how it tears down. It is packed with people who have been to the bottom of the valley and to the top of the mountain. It is packed with people who know that sometimes just sitting with another person is best. The Church gathers all these people under the wings of God, points their attention to a Savior who heals, then turns our attention back to one another so that we can bring each other to the healing power of Jesus...so that we can be healed by the power of friendship.
The good news of the gospel today is that true friendship, friendship built and sustained by faith, has the power to heal. The good news of the gospel today is that you and are surrounded by brothers and sisters who know, that are willing to be incarnate, embodied in our lives not just when we need it the most, but always. The good news of the gospel is that Christ knows our ailments, the things that society calls ‘problems’, the pain and the aguish we routinely suffer—and he doesn’t just know about it, he has the power to heal it, to heal us, to heal those who think we are ‘problems’.
I invite you to respond to this good news in two ways. First, be a friend to someone. Reach out to them, not just digitally or through social media, but with the very presence of your life in theirs. Get to know them. Learn their life story, what pain they have experienced, what joys keep them going. Foster a true relationship with them so that when they are in need, you can respond by taking them to the Lord for healing. Second, allow yourself to be friended. Allow yourself to be vulnerable with someone else, a family member, a loved one, a coworker. Allow them to have a glimpse into your life, a look at what stands in your way and what keeps you going. Allow them to be embodied in your life, so that when the times comes and you are the one in need, they can take you to the One who heals all things. Allow them to be the same image of Christ to you that you are wanting to be for them.
Prince Albert and the deaf man in the gospel have one final thing in common: a happy ending. Both men were healed—they weren’t ‘fixed’ because they weren't a ‘problem’ to begin with. They were healed. And friendship played a big part in their healing. Healing is what God desires for all of us. May our friendships, inside and outside the church, be true and faithful, and may they bring us to that healing as well. Amen.