Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. -Mark 7
I was recently trying to explain to one of my “secular” friends what a Masters of Divinity is. Sometimes feel like outside the church world that having a degree from a seminary is kinda like having a degree from Hogwarts. Sure, we know all about the magic, but like, outside the wizarding world no one cares. Don’t get me wrong, we learned some cool stuff in seminary– but usually it’s stuff normal people don’t care about. Kinda in the way I don’t care about football.
I mention this by way of getting to the fact that the thesis I wrote while at CU Boulder was a cultural history of Deaf churches in America and to date I have never once been able to work it into conversation at a cocktail party … but given our Gospel reading, I finally get to work it into a sermon so…I thought: wouldn’t be fun to start this morning with a little American history lesson. So here we go: For most of the 18th and 19th century, long before it was a vacation spot, Martha’s Vineyard was a bi-lingual community. It was a bi-lingual community because everyone spoke both English and, interestingly enough, not French, or Spanish…but sign language. See, deafness can be a recessive hereditary trait and at this point, Martha’s Vineyard was a pretty isolated genetic population which meant that any given person on the island could have both hearing and deaf siblings. As a matter of fact, in the mid 1800’s there were areas of Martha’s Vineyard where 25% of the population was deaf. So deafness wasn’t a problem some people had, deafness was just a trait some people had, like blondness or tallness. And everyone spoke sign language, which means Deafness was also not a disability.
I mention this because I’m pretty sure everyone didn’t speak sign language in the Decapolis where, in our Gospel text for today, the healing of the deaf man takes place. Which means this guy’s deafness was not just a trait, it was a problem. So much of a problem that the text tells us that “THEY” whoever THEY is… THEY brought the Deaf man to Jesus and Begged him to fix the guy, begged him to fix their problem…um, I mean to fix his problem. Just to be clear: the text doesn’t say a word about what the deaf guy wanted.
So this week I started wondering: if Jesus showed up in Martha’s Vineyard 150 years ago when deafness was just a trait and not a disease would the collective “THEY” have brought him a deaf man to heal? Because wouldn’t that kind of be like them bringing him a man born blonde and BEGGING Jesus to fix his problem?
And I get that there was not a whole lot of talk about psychology and identity politics and disability rights in Biblical times…and I’m admittedly a hack when it comes to this stuff, but I couldn’t help thinking that THEY were using this man’s deafness to be what a family systems expert would call their “identified problem”.
Hey Jesus – we, the people who are just fine brought you the broken guy so you can fix him.
I can’t help feeling like it would have been more realistic if all of the THEYs who brought the deaf man to Jesus would have also sought healing for themselves.
But that’s not how we operate, see. We tend to let the obviously broken people carry all the brokenness for us. It’s quite the convenient system really. Like when someone is obviously an active alcoholic, we are thrilled not to have to look at our own drinking.
This system we have where we all agree on who the real drunk is and who the real liar is and who the real emotionally needy person is works really well for us. I bet right now you could turn to the person next to you and give them the first names of who of the designated drunks and liars and needy people in your parish are. And if we all think about it, we as clergy end up so often being the ones who play along with it. The culture in so many churches along with our desire to be seen as spiritual leaders collude in making sure that we are always the ones who have concern for the broken people and never are ourselves the broken people and even while we are doing it we know it’s compete BS. But like any dysfunctional system, it works. You know, until Jesus shows up and ruins it.
Because when Jesus showed up in Decapolis and THEY brought him the deaf man, Jesus didn’t play into the whole “we’re fine but here’s the broken guy” thing – instead he took the deaf man away from the THEY. He removes him from that whole system of designated well people and designated sick people. And then, Jesus, in yet another example of having obviously failed his boundaries workshop in seminary, sticks his fingers in this man’s ears and spits and touched his tongue and then looks to heaven and the text says he sighed. Of course he sighed. He was probably sick to death of this nonsense. He looked to heaven and sighed. And the thing is, Jesus didn’t then rebuke the man or his deafness…he didn’t say I cast out the demon of deafness. He just removed him from the supposedly well people, touched him, looked to heaven, sighed and said “BE OPEN”.
We so often think healing is about identifying what’s wrong and then having that thing cured, but I wonder if spiritual healing has more to do with being opened than it does with being cured.
There’s a famous Evangelical Christian named Joni Erikson. She became a quaraplegic from a diving accident as a teenager and went on to write a lovely memoir about that story and about her relationship with God. Having lost the use of her arms she eventually learned to paint by holding a brush in her teeth and she was a real hero of mine growing up. Which is why a few years ago, when I was watching 24 consecutive hours of bad Christian television for a book I was writing, I was pretty dismayed when Joni Erikson appeared as a guest on the 700 club…because even I can’t be snarky about this woman. It was like Jesus was sticking his fingers in my ears and saying “Be opened to experiencing some Gospel in, of all places, the 700 club” Jesus is just seriously the worst some times. Anyhow, so, Joni Erikson is simply a lovely human being and what she said in that interview forever changed how I view the issue of healing. Not surprisingly, a whole lot of well meaning and enthusiastic “prayer warriors” often offer to pray for Joni to be healed of her quadriplegia, and unlike me who would likely roll my eyes and say give me a break she never refuses prayer. But from her wheelchair Joni Erikson says to them, I would love some prayer, but could you instead please pray for healing from the times when I cherish inflated ideas of my own importance … the times when I fudge the truth … the times when I manipulate my husband to get things my own way…sin…’mam, if you want to pray for me pray that I receive the power of resurrection to put to death the things in my life that displease God.
See, the THEY she encounters might keep praying for a cure but Joni Erikson is opened. She’s one of the most healed people I’ve ever heard speak.
It’s simply a wonderful statement for healing isn’t it? be opened.
It’s an image that’s stuck with me all week. This might sound weird but all week I kept picturing Jesus sticking his fingers in each of your ears – in the ears of you pastors and saying “BE OPENED”. And then in the same daydream, before I could stop it, I pictured Jesus’ Holy and unwashed fingers in my own ears. He touched me, sighed, looked to heaven and said Be Opened. To which I said “oh. no thanks”.
Because, let’s be honest, it’s usually easier to not change and it’s painful to be open and healing can hurt. Like a frostbite patient … when the blood comes back into the extremities it’s incredibly painful. It can actually be more comfortable to allow parts of ourselves to die than to feel them have new life. Because sometimes healing feels more like death and resurrection than it feels like getting a warm cookie and glass of milk.
For me what’s hard is that there’s not much self-determination left when I stand in the stark presence of Christ – as he sees me for who I really am and then sighs, looks to heaven and says Nadia – be open. But Jesus is like that, taking us away from whatever the THEY thinks about us, getting all up in our business and insisting on our wholeness. And by our wholeness I am talking about our wholeness. Me, you, and every other person serving God’s people.
Be opened jesus is saying to you.
Be opened to the idea that your value isn’t in working 60 hours a week for people who might not even be paying attention.
Be opened to knowing that your own brokenness doesn’t need to be hidden behind someone else’s brokenness.
Be opened to the idea that you are stronger than you think.
Be opened to the idea that you aren’t as strong as you think.
Be opened to the fact that you may not ever get what you want and that you will actually be ok anyway.
Be opened to this whole Gospel of Jesus Christ thing actually, actually, actually being real. And actually being FOR YOU.
Because maybe that’s what healing really is.
Since the radical reign of God that Jesus ushers in destroys the systems of designated sick people and designated well people so that all that is left is a single category of people – children of God. And in this radical reign of God anything that I use to define who I am… and anything I use to define who everyone else is other than the gospel is going to be taken away and I’m going to hate it and It’s going to hurt like blood flowing back into my frozen fingers. Like
But fear not, good people of God, because what ever it is that you cling to: pleasing people, your stalwart insistence that you are totally fine, worship attendance numbers, your victimhood, your political correctness, your pension…what ever it is you cling to….it can never love you like your Jesus can love you. A savior who knows damn well what healing you really need and who takes you away from THEM Opens your ears to tell you that you are whole, and you are loved and you are his and that nothing else gets to tell you who you are. Amen
*this sermon was adapted from one I preached at HFASS last Summer