The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Deafness is certainly no joke but for many people it is a natural phenomenon which is, regrettably, part of the aging process. Nowadays, small, inconspicuous hearing aids can help those with hearing loss. For others, deafness is something they have learned to live with, perhaps since birth. The first American school for the deaf was established in the city of Hartford, Connecticut in 1817. Over time, the signs used at that school evolved into what we now know as American Sign Language giving the deaf community a means by which to communicate.
While there is no doubt that people who cannot hear face many difficult challenges, deafness, as a condition of being differently abled, no longer carries the horrible stigma it did in the ancient world. In the time of Jesus, people believed that if a person was deaf, blind, or disabled in some way, it was a sign of God’s wrath and punishment. There was a perception that the person was bad and had gotten what he or she deserved. The Jews also believed such people were unclean and would avoid physical contact to prevent themselves from becoming unclean and unacceptable to God.
This deaf man would have learned that his lot in life was to be treated as an unclean person living under God’s curse. In addition to not being able to hear, he had a speech impediment, I’m sure a source of great embarrassment. He would not have felt worthy to approach Jesus and risk contaminating him. The way Jesus treats this man is a powerful statement of God’s love and mercy.
He takes him aside for a close encounter. I imagine that the disciples and the rest of those present would have been extremely troubled by that. Peter or James might have cautioned Jesus to stay away from the unclean person.
What Jesus doesn’t say is noteworthy. We might expect him to say, “Be healed,” or “Let your ears hear!” But he doesn’t. The text says that he looked up to heaven and sighed. Perhaps thinking out loud, “Good God, what this poor man has suffered in this intolerant, unloving world because of his condition.” Then Jesus addresses the whole person and says “Ephaphatha!” “ Be Opened!” Be opened to God’s healing grace and a divine love you’ve never known. Be opened to God’s acceptance and touch and warmth! Be opened to all that God wants to give you and to the life that awaits you!
Jesus did not just open his ears and loose his tongue. He opened up his entire life. He gave him a new beginning, a fresh start in life, and a world that would now be entirely accessible to him. Jesus restored his hearing and his speech, yes, but the more significant effect of that was that this person could now be a full participant in the life of a community.
If we keep the pearl that is in this Gospel locked away in the first century, we have made it into a museum piece and we have become as deaf and dumb as the man in the story. The words Jesus spoke to that man were a command—not merely a suggestion. Jesus charges us today in the same way. Our minds can be closed, cynical, and lacking all imagination about what God wants to do for us and what the Spirit can accomplish in our lives if we would just be opened.
A reflection I read on this story stuck me. “Sadly, even in the church—or shall I say especially in the church—we have allowed our lives to be shaped by our society rather than the other way around. We can be pretty darn closed. Jesus may not need to open our ears or our lips but he sure may need to open our minds.
Seward Hiltner, the one-time Professor of Pastoral Theology at Princeton, maintained that healing and wholeness always has a “from,” a “to,” and a “by” dimension. “From” bondage, isolation and shackles of any sort, “to” a new life of grace, “by” the unconditional healing love of God in Christ. Maybe this healing story is a challenge to explore this spiritual and psychological equation yourself; to discover how God is drawing you away “from” that which is binding, and inviting you “into” that which is new and life-giving, “by” the real presence and mercy of God. And once received, then explore how God might be calling you to be an agent of healing and grace for another.”
Last week I had lunch with my friend and my former assistant rector. Peter Thompson is a 30 year-old brilliant and compassionate priest now Vicar of the great St. Bart’s Church on Park Avenue in Manhattan. He asked. “Where do you think the church is headed in the wake of the pandemic? What will it look like?” Neither Peter nor I have the answer.
Yet I do know that we Episcopalians have been open to a lot of change in our long history, much of which has been our commitment to welcome and include all people no matter who they are or where they have been on their faith exploration.
So, I pose this question to us this morning: Where do you think the church is headed in the wake of the pandemic? What will it look like? What is our part in its future?
Will we be open to the opportunities God may be making available to our communities? Will we be open to the movement of the Spirit nudging us to try new things, explore new avenues, discover creative strains of energy we never knew we could consider? Will we be open to honoring the best of our Episcopal tradition and shout it from the roof tops instead of hiding it under a bushel?
That’s a lot to process! I think it calls for our attention, conversation and discernment and I look forward to an opportunity for us to do just that as together we discover how God is drawing us away “from” that which is binding and inviting us “into” that which is new and life-giving, “by” the real presence and mercy of God. And once received, then explore how God might be calling each one of us to be an agent of healing and grace—even in the midst of a pandemic