Sunday, September 10, 2006

Proper 18B

Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:31-37

They say that public speaking is the number one fear of people in this country. One report I read actually placed it just behind fear of snakes, with which I think my husband and his Rattlesnake-Jumping-Out-of-a-Tree story would concur, but for many people, the thought of getting up to speak in front of a group makes them want to jump out of a tree. Is it a fear of being heard, or perhaps being not heard? A fear of sounding unintelligible, of mixing up words, of making no sense? A fear of appearing foolish? Google “fear of public speaking” and you’ll find an entire industry aimed at loosening our tongues, healing that fear.

It hadn’t occurred to me that public speaking would be a significant piece of ordained ministry. To my fairly quiet-natured surprise, I found that I’m not afraid in the pulpit or behind a lectern or even (okay, I was a little nervous about this at first) just standing with no notes before a group and speaking.

I’m not afraid, but I am aware of various things that sometimes keep me from being heard, or that make me sound if not unintelligible then unusual, or that make me appear or at least feel foolish. I know my voice is pretty quiet, which can make me hard to hear. I’m told I don’t have a very strong southern accent, but I’ve got a few words that come out quirky, marking me as a South Carolinian southerner. Here, of course, that isn’t a problem, but I went to seminary in New York City where several of my southern classmates had some difficulty being understood. And I know I sometimes wrestle with words, especially when they’re not written down, and then I get a little tongue-tied so that even I am not quite sure what I’m saying.

In elementary school, I was referred to the speech therapist to correct a lisp that I think I still sometimes have. No one ever commented on it back then, and no one does now, but when words with an excess of “s’s” appear I treat them carefully. Of course I would settle in Mississippi. “Th” is a problem, too, so that I’m a little self-conscious when celebrating in Rite One, for fear of sounding like Daffy Duck: All glory be to thee, heavenly Father...for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didsth give us thine only Son…. I’m not afraid of most of the words in scripture, at least not the Latin or Greek ones. But Hebrew, Aramaic – well, they’re more subtle, with combinations of consonants that confound. Ephphatha….Proceed with caution….

Despite that difficult word, it is easy to recognize a story about healing in our gospel reading. But if we open our eyes and look more closely, we see that it is also very much about the power of God working through Christ to save us, to heal us. And if we open our ears and listen very carefully, we hear that the man with impediments in his speech and hearing was not the only person healed that day.

Impediments – obstacles, things that constrain us, that set limits on us, that hold us back. It literally means something that gets in the way of your feet, from the Latin root pede. We all have impediments, we all have something that gets in the way, something that needs to be healed. Something small – a lisp; or something far more constraining – deafness, blindness, immobility, illness. In the communities Jesus entered, Gentile and Jewish, such impediments not only held you back – they also set you apart. It was believed that disability and illness were caused by sin. Healing of the body was evidence of forgiveness.

But today’s readings aren’t just about physical impediments. In fact, they’re hardly about that at all. In our first reading, Isaiah writes just before the Hebrew people were released from exile in Babylon and allowed to return home. In that story, the distance was the physical impediment, and the Hebrews did believe that their exile was punishment for their sins. Finally, God was going to remove that impediment, forgive those sins, heal the people. They weren’t back in Jerusalem very long, though, when it became clear that the real impediments, the real deafness and blindness and immobility in their lives went far deeper than their skin, deeper than their bones. They would need a much deeper healing to be able to hear and see and speak and move in a way that revealed what it meant to be chosen, saved, and called.

The impediments, disabilities, weaknesses, illnesses that are the most devastating in our lives aren’t those that carry a medical diagnosis. After all, people who are deaf or blind, who cannot move independently, who have a chronic illness very often are able to adapt their lives, so that they are not impeded, not held back from living fully and deeply for as long as possible. But there are much deeper, far more dangerous impediments that can cripple any of us, regardless of our physical condition; that can constrain us, deafen us, blind us, and immobilize us; impediments such as anger, pride, greed, hate, regret, resentment. The deepest, the most constraining, is fear.

There is a lot to be afraid of. The world is a noisy place. Glitter, glamour, fame, fortune, military strength, political power, perfection; hunger, poverty, prejudice, cruelty, crime; deadlines, bills, strained relationships, traffic, high expectations, unmet needs, the dog that barks from 5-6:00 every morning….we have to practice selective hearing just to make it through the day. Close our ears, close our eyes – the less we are open to, the less we have respond to. But that doesn’t heal anything, least of all ourselves.

New York City was certainly a noisy place to go to seminary. In self-defense at first, then just because we were accustomed to it, we tuned out the ever-present hum, the sirens, the car alarms, the jackhammers, the traffic, the millions of voices, the airplanes roaring overhead, the subway rumbling beneath, the vendors and prophets on the streets. It’s no use – it’s too loud to pray, we complained.

Only if you’ve grown deaf, a professor gently chided. And he led us in the noisiest silent prayer I’d ever experienced. Listen, he urged us, and pray for what you hear. Are there sirens? Pray for those who are sick, and those who care for them. Are there voices arguing? Pray for relationships. Is the subway passing under us? Pray for those who travel, for those who work. Ephphatha. Be opened.

Ephphatha. It was the very first word the man would hear as Jesus touched him, breathed on him. Healed him. Ephphatha. In the early church it was the first word a newly baptized person would hear after the priest pulled them from the water. Ephphatha. Be opened.

The second word the man would hear – well, Mark doesn’t tell us the word, but he does tell us that it was the man himself who spoke it. His first public speech….what would you say? Was it something like the psalm we just read, I will praise the Lord as long as I live, I will sing praises to my God while I have my being? Was it a simple, I can hear! Whatever the man said, he said it, Mark tells us, without impediment; he spoke plainly, and don’t you know it was music to his ears.

And not to his ears only, but also to the ears of the people who heard him speak, and then they, too, found their voice. Zealously, Mark writes, zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘Jesus has done everything well.’ Do you hear the echo of another story, when God touched the void, breathed on creation, granted life, and said of everything that had been done, it has been done well, it is good….Mark intends us to hear that echo. All those people’s ears worked just fine, and yet they had been deaf somewhere deeper inside until they heard Jesus, who suddenly sounded familiar, speak. Ephphatha. Be opened.

We may all have physical impediments that we wish could be healed as Jesus healed the deaf man that day. Sometimes bodies are healed and life renewed even when every medicine has failed….what would you say in that moment? Most of the time, though, we are very much more like the crowd, like the people who brought the man to Jesus in the first place.

There must have been some there who had known Jesus and followed him for quite some time. There were probably some who knew a little about him and were curious. And there were others who didn’t know what to believe, but who lived by compassion. Perhaps some had never seen the deaf man as they passed by him each day. There they all were, gathered around Jesus, bringing the concerns of their community to him, hearing the word, offering praise and thanksgiving….do you hear the echo of what we’re doing here, now? Aren’t we very much like them!

What impediments are deep inside us? What holds us back from being able to hear and see and speak and move in a way that reveals what it means to be chosen, saved, called? What are we afraid of? What deep down needs healing so that we can endure and perhaps even embrace the noise?

We who have been pulled out of the waters of baptism, who have been touched in the name of Jesus, who are here by faith or curiosity or compassion: we are called to proclaim what we have heard and seen, to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ, not against the noise of this world but in the midst of it.

What will we say? It doesn’t have to sound perfect. To some we will sound unintelligible. Some will think we sound foolish. But if we can speak plainly, from the places we have been touched by God, then for some….the words will be music to their ears.

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees, Isaiah sang. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God….who will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped – ephphatha; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. Amen.

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