Sermon delivered by the Rev. Cristina Rathbone
24From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
31Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
I love the story about the courageous, smart Syro-Phoenician woman who won’t take no for an answer, and who is so moved by love of her daughter that she changes Jesus’ mind about who he has come to meet and to heal – not God’s chosen people only but all of us: Jew and gentile, male and female, powerful and outcast, rich and poor. This part of our reading today is muscular in ways that few stories from the Gospel are, and, especially given my recent work on the border where I was privileged to serve with people who many in this country think are less than (at best), it’s tempting to go surging off for the next few minutes about the grace and the power and the extraordinary giftedness of people who for one reason or another occupy a space out on the margins of our society – and about how we, as a nation and a church, so desperately need them…
It’s tempting….But today, at least, I’m not going to. In fact – and perhaps at my peril – I’m going to practically ignore the fiery-hearted, brilliant and courageous woman in favor of the deaf man with a speech impediment whose story comes right after hers.
He seems to be the very opposite of the Syro-Phoenician woman, this man. Unlike her, he does nothing to seek out Jesus in any way at all. Instead it is others who bring him to Jesus, and others again who then beg for healing on his behalf. Instead of pestering Jesus, then, insisting on his right to be heard and refusing to let him go until he receives the blessing he needs, through it all — both the requesting and the healing itself — the deaf man does nothing at all. Not one single thing.
It’s a bit strange, once you notice it.
At first, I thought his passivity might stem from his deafness itself – a condition which perhaps closed him off from the rhythm and flow of everyday life and caused him to keep to himself more than most. And this could be. But then I started to wonder whether his distance from the life that seemed to surge all around him might also have been caused by a lifetime of not being included at best, and being shunned and blamed and bullied at worst. Believing that illness of all kinds were a deserved punishment from God, folks back then must have treated this man pretty terribly, pretty often. And as I thought about this last week, I wondered if at least a part of this man hadn’t given up over time – losing not only his desire to engage, but also his ability even to see any longer how different and enlarged his life would be if he did. After an entire lifetime of it, being invisible to others, and feared, and sometimes even despised, must have felt simply normal to him; as unremarkable and inevitable-seeming as the fact that day followed night followed day followed night. Which meant, of course, that there was no point in him acting to change things in any way at all. Because what was there to change? His thin and reduced world had become for him, nothing more and nothing less than reality. Life. Simply the way things were.
We all do this, to one degree or another, I think. We grow up in a certain way, surrounded by certain people with certain blind spots, or weaknesses, or habits, or ways of being, and because we grow up so completely surrounded by them, these habits of life – too much alcohol perhaps, or indifference, or violence, or busy-ness, or eccentricity, or whatever it is — becomes invisible to us. Becomes normal.
And it doesn’t end with childhood, of course. As adults too, we each of us develop our own ways of living which– through repetition and habit – become as invisible to us as I’m imagining the deaf man’s limited circumstances had become to him. Sometimes these ways of living develop into serious addictions – to drink, to work, to shopping, to….you fill in the blank. And sometimes they emerge as smaller, but no less constant, patterns of behavior like watching too much tv, or too much of the same tv, or simply settling into a routine that never changes, going to the same places, seeing the same people month after month, year after year, until the way we live our lives becomes, over time, not something we choose, so much as something we do without thinking.
After a time, of course, these much reduced realities others make for us and we then go on to construct for ourselves – get confused for THE reality – for reality itself. And so we trundle through life having reduced the great expanse of possibility and openness that is available to each of us, every day, into cramped and finite rooms, the walls of which we may bang up against every now and then, but which, we tell ourselves, we are unable to do anything about. That’s just the way things are, we say. We may as well just drift along, getting by as best we can —just like the deaf man.
But of course, this isn’t true. Our too bounded realities are NOT the whole story. And we are all – each one of us – free to open the doors of the little rooms we too often occupy. All of us, all the time, free to carve out windows from the worlds we have trapped ourselves into and then to clamber out into the freedom and spaciousness of life abundant.
And this is just what Jesus longs for, of course. Remember the image of him from the Song of Solomon last week, standing outside of the wall tapping on the lattice, summoning us out? It’s the same thing again, today, only more direct. “Ephphatha,” he says, that is, “Be opened.” Mark tells us, and immediately the deaf man’s ears “were opened, (and) his tongue was released.” And as it was for the deaf man, so it can be for us too.
So perhaps this, in the end, is the point. There are those – like the Syro-Phonecian woman – who are able to summon their courage and charge into life wide-open, unafraid of the consequences, daring to demand the change that they need to live. These people (often those whose external lives look hard and poor and less-than the rest of ours) know their need for Jesus and they seek him out until they find him, and then wrestle with him the way Jacob wrestled with the angel and refuse to let him go without a blessing — and Jesus LOVES these people, and draws them in and changes them even as they change him.
And then there are those of us who simply can’t live our lives so out on the edge, who have become trapped by comfort, or pain, or fear, or routine, or the opinion others have formed about who we are and who we aren’t — and we need Jesus to come to us, and to summon us out, privately perhaps, the way Jesus did with the deaf man, taking him quietly away from the crowd before speaking to him and touching his ears and touching his tongue and finally calling him out into the open with him. And the good news is that this is exactly what Jesus does. Through the silence of the pre-dawn, or the resounding green of the hills, or the surprising encounter with a stranger; through the shock of something new, or the loss of something old, and most of all, through the too often silenced longings of our own hearts, Jesus himself calls to us too because he LOVES us too – and because he wants to be with us, and us to be with him, in the life abundant he promises us all. ‘Ephphatha’, he says, and again ‘Ephphatha’, ‘Ephphatha’…
The limits of our lives are far more distant than we many of us make them. And the possibilities are far more numerous. And the lives we lead which seem simply ‘real’ might not even begin to plumb the depths of the reality that is available to us – even right now. And here’s the thing – somewhere deep down, underneath the adaptions we have made and the limits we have learned to accept, we know this. Which is why Jesus persists – which is Jesus persisting, perhaps even.
So, if you are like the Syro-Phonecian woman and are in pain so acute, or circumstances so dire, that you know the depths of your need, just keep going – Jesus will hear you and Jesus will act on your behalf – he simply can’t help it. It is who he is.
And if you are bound to the way things seem to be laid out for you – if you have accepted the too thin scraps you believe you have been given is all you can expect – well, Jesus will seek you out, and find you, and then he will act on your behalf too, promising he will be with you as he whispers in your ear: ephaphtha, ephaphtha – he simply can’t help it. It is who he is: the lover and supporter and redeemer of us all, male and female, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, desperate and comfortably trapped – all of us, one with him. All of us free.