Wednesday, September 20, 2006

repairing the world

Maybe in your travels this summer, you got lost somewhere along the way. Coming back from the mountains or the beach. With interstate highways, it doesn’t happen so often, but Pam and I explored an extensive portion of South Carolina coming the “back way” from Myrtle Beach last year! We didn’t take the most direct route!

The gospels often give us the details of Jesus’ travels, around the Galilee, back and forth between the Jewish and the Gentile (pagan) areas. In our gospel for this morning, Jesus has returned from the region of Tyre, by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.

Most scholars puzzle over this---it was definitely not the most direct route, and it took him into a mostly gentile area, unusual, maybe, for a rabbi who kept the law. The Decapolis was the region of the ten greek cities; this was foreign territory, these were not the home folks. Unusual, in a way, but in another not so unusual. When Jesus called men and women to follow him, it seemed clear from the start that people were not always going to take the most direct route. When Jesus called us to follow him---and this is really the most basic invitation---he says “follow me”---we are going to find ourselves in unlikely places.

Imagine an Irish kid who grows up in a partly religious, partly atheistic family. He loves music. And people the world over love his music. He becomes famous across the planet, in Shanghai and Los Angeles, in Paris and Rio De Janeiro, in Sydney and Rome, known by a single name, “Bono”. In his spare time he reads the Bible, of all books. I never had a problem with Christ”, he would say. I had a problem with Christians, but I never had a problem with Christ”. He does a benefit for the hungry people of the world, then a series of benefits, then he decides to spend the summer with his wife in Ethiopia, in the midst of a famine, working in a feeding camp. This is a man who has a villa in the south of France.

Followers of Jesus find themselves in unlikely places. But you don’t have to be a rock star. People in this community, people here this morning, find themselves in unlikely places. I think of a man in our church who spends a great deal of time with kids in a part of town that his work and social life would never take him to. I think of a couple who visit a church member with cancer. I think of two people in our church who rearranged their entire lives to develop a lifelong mission in Haiti. I think of people who spend the night in our basement, the catacombs, with the homeless. I think of people in our church who have spent a great deal of time encouraging others to give financially to God’s mission and vision for this church.

When we begin to follow Jesus, we sometimes find ourselves in unlikely places, places that are outside of our comfort zone. Well, back to Jesus. They bring him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.

When you go to unlikely places, you are going to meet interesting, sometimes troubled and afflicted people. This man could neither speak nor hear. He could only see. Jesus is constantly meeting troubled, afflicted people in the gospels: blind people, deaf and dumb, lepers, a woman with an issue of blood, a crippled woman bound for eighteen years, a deranged person wandering around in the graveyard. He met another set of folks---the religious people, the ones he seemed to have the most trouble with, but they are not really our focus just now.

The troubled people, afflicted in some visible way, surrounded Jesus. “We are legion”, one of them had said to Jesus, “there are so many of us”. This reality had multiple meanings. First, there was the human suffering, which was evident. If you have come upon a highway accident or a sporting injury or an unexpected grief, the human suffering is palpable. But there was a deeper religious meaning. In the ancient middle east, troubled people, imperfect and impure people, afflicted people could not fully participate in the life of God’s people.

Something was wrong with them. They were excluded. They were untouchable.

And so Jesus is being asked to do two things. One, “lay your hands on this person, make them well, make them one of us”. Fix it. But second, “if Jesus did that, surely, his own hands would become unclean”. Do you sense the conflict?

I remember when our children were small, we would be walking along in some public place, one of them would reach down to pick up a piece of paper, or a discarded cup, or a wad of chewed gum, and one of us would quickly say “don’t touch that!”. That is a good thing for a parent to do.

But most of us, if we are honest, go through life with that motto still at work in our minds. Those are unclean people----don’t touch that. Those are impure people—don’t touch that. As if we are the clean, and they are the unclean, as if we are the pure and they are the impure.

The crowd is watching, hoping for some kind of public spectacle: What are you going to do with this one, Jesus?

Well, he takes the man aside, in private, away from the crowd.

Why does he do this? To give the man dignity? Most people who are sick, who are suffering, want some boundary that gives them some privacy. In our modern world of constant communication, we are tempted to watch the sufferings, the imperfections of people. The twenty four hour television news cycle is really like watching a train wreck about to happen.

Years ago I was pastor of a church in which a funeral for a young person was being held. A television anchor called me. Could the station film the service? No, I said. Could the station place cameras outside the sanctuary as people were going in? No, I said. Could they come in and take pictures of the sanctuary just prior to the service? No, I said. This is a public event, the anchor told me. This is not just about your church. I responded, “the family’s right to grieve is more important than the public’s desire to look in to their private suffering”.

He takes the man aside, away from the crowd.

Then he puts his fingers into his ears, and he spits and touches his tongue.

This was a ritual of healing: he touches the man, he crosses a division between clean and unclean, pure and impure, and, of course, this is what Jesus always does. He eats with sinners, he welcomes children, he touches lepers, he always shows up in the most unlikely places. He actually touches the man, which was a violation of the Book of Leviticus. He touches the man in the place of his pain and disability: his ears, his mouth.

If you visualize the scene, you can imagine that Jesus is directly in front of the man. He is taking the man’s head into his hands, and in that moment, they see each other, face to face. What is it like to see Jesus, face to face? In the Old Testament, one could not see God face to face, well, only Moses could see God face to face.

But Jesus is in a face-to-face encounter with the man, the man who can neither speak nor hear, but he can see. Those who are deaf or speechless, I am told, often compensate for that in other ways. Ray Charles was blind, but he could hear, and he could sing. A disability in one area often becomes an ability in another. The man with Jesus must have taken in that moment with a heightened sense of perception.

And so his eyes were wide open. Is it possible that the healing began in that moment? When he saw Jesus clearly, and Jesus saw him?

In this moment Jesus looks up to heaven, He acknowledges that God is the source of healing. Then he sighs, or groans, a sign, perhaps of the intercession of which Paul speaks in Romans 8. 26, sighs too deep for words.

And then he says, to the man, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”

Mark records the Aramaic language of Jesus, the language in which he spoke. We find it in another place: “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?”

Be opened”, Jesus speaks the word and immediately the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. In the spoken word, recalling the pattern of Genesis 1, there is a new creation. The man is healed. If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation, Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the old has passed away, the new has come. When Jesus encounters imperfection, his response is not to destroy. His response is to heal, to create, to re-create. And of course the healing miracles were not only an experience of compassion. They were signs that pointed to something bigger. Those present understood that this was a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah

Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God…He will come and save you.
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one. Not the best marketing plan in the world, right? What was this all about? He does something amazing, restorative, even beautiful and then he says, “don’t tell anybody”. Was it reverse psychology? Probably not. More than likely other factors are at work. Jesus was not in this for the applause or admiration of the crowds. Jesus wanted the act to speak for itself. And perhaps Jesus did not want his work on this earth to be overwhelmed by demands of a traveling healer. He had other priorities that were within his Father’s purpose for him. “Don’t tell anybody”. And yet, the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.

Good news travels fast. Do you know what gossip is? You might have in mind a sense of what gossip is, but let me tell you about the origin of the word. Gossip is an old English word that comes from two words, God and sibling. Gossip happened, in old England when a family member or God parent spoke on your behalf or said something good about you. This changed over time to two people talking to each other, and then to the idle, mostly negative talk itself. And yet, in its origin, gossip was that feeling you get when something wonderful happens to someone or for someone in your family and you just have to share it! Don’t tell anyone”, Jesus says. Of course, they are disobedient. They are compelled to tell the story, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Brothers and sisters, we are the followers of Jesus. If we follow him, we are going to be led into unlikely places. The world in which we live is in need of healing. It is easy to judge the imperfections of the world, and even to become preoccupied with our own failures. What does the gospel of Jesus Christ mean on this weekend preceding the 9/11 Anniversary and following the Katrina anniversary? Could it be a call to follow Jesus, the healer, to receive the gift of sight, that we might see more clearly and the gift of speech, that we might speak more truthfully? And what if, after all of the destruction that has been visited upon us, there was a possibility of a new creation? Wouldn’t that be a miracle? But don’t we follow someone who is able to perform miracles?


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