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.36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak. -Mark 7:31-37
(Editor's Note: Listen along to Nadia's sermon on below or click HERE.)
Given our Gospel reading, I thought it might be fun to start with a little American history lesson. So here we go: For most of the 18th and 19th centuries, long before it was a vacation spot, Martha’s Vineyard was a bilingual community. It was a bilingual community because everyone spoke both English and, interestingly enough, not French, or Spanish … but sign language. See, deafness was a recessive hereditary trait, and 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 1800s, there were areas of Martha’s Vineyard where 25 percent of the population was deaf. So deafness was just a trait some people had, like blondness or tallness. And everyone spoke sign language.
But everyone didn’t speak sign language in the region of Decapolis, where the healing of the deaf man takes place, so “THEY” — whoever THEY is — THEY brought to Jesus a deaf man with a speech impediment and begged Jesus to lay his hand on him. The text doesn’t say a word about what the deaf guy wanted.
So this week I started wondering that 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 it would kind of be like them bringing him a man born blonde and begging Jesus to fix him.
And I get that there was not a whole lot of talk about psychology and identity politics and disability rights in Biblical times … 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 also would have sought healing for themselves.
But that’s not how we operate. We 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 and who is obviously disabled person works really well for us. That is, until Jesus shows up and ruins it.
Because when Jesus showed up, I think it’s interesting that he took that deaf man away from the THEY. He removes him from that system. He sticks his fingers in his ears and spits and touched his tongue and looks to heaven and the text says, he sighed. 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 touched him, looked to heaven, sighed and said “BE OPEN."
It’s a wonderful statement for healing isn’t it? Be open.
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 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 sighed he looked to heaven and he said, "Be opened." To which I said, “No thanks."
See, It’s painful to be open. There’s no control in it. No self-determination. 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.
Be opened, he says.
Be opened to a life where you aren’t the broken one anymore.
Be opened to the possibility that there is healing in the world and it might not look like you think it should.
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 finally being happy.
Be opened to your own need for healing especially if you yourself are a healer.
Be opened to life and life abundant.
Maybe that’s what healing really is.
We think it’s about identifying what’s wrong with someone else or with ourselves and then having that thing cured, but I wonder if spiritual healing has more to do with being opened than being cured.
There’s a famous Evangelical Christian named Joni Erikson. She became a quadriplegic as a teenager and went on to write a lovely memoir about that story and her relationship with God. Having lost the use of her arms, she eventually learned to paint by holding a brush in her teeth. She was a real hero of mine growing up. Which is why when I was watching 24 consecutive hours of bad Christian television a few years ago for a book I was writing, I was dismayed when Joni Erikson appeared as a guest on the 700 Club. Because even I can’t be snarky about this woman. She is 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, "Could you instead please pray for 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 … ma'am, 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."
The THEY she encounters might keep praying for a cure but Joni Erikson is opened.
My friend Sara this week told me about a friend of hers who that very day was just hours away from dying. She told me that for 15 years, her friend had dealt with different cancers and treatments and that he was completely at peace about his own death. She then described this sick man as the most healed person she knew. He was opened.
But it’s not easy. Healing can hurt. It can feel like a loss as much as it can feel like a gain.
Because sometimes healing feels more like death and resurrection than getting a warm cookie and glass of milk.
Maybe you are someone who has for so long been the one who suffers depression or illness or dysfunction that you are simply more comfortable that way, because frankly, when you stay sick no one expects much from you. And that’s easier.
Maybe you are someone who deals so much with the brokenness and sickness of others in your work that you forget that you are in need of healing too.
Maybe you are someone who has experienced healing of hospitality here in this community and you have yet to be healed through offer the same thing to others.
Maybe you, like myself, would rather not admit to needing anything form anyone. Including Jesus.
And to all of this I picture Jesus sticking his fingers in our ears, looking to heaven, sighing and saying “be opened." Be opened because there is more.
In the kingdom of God the kingdom inaugurated by the crucified and risen one, there is more — which is exactly why after these healings Jesus told people not to go and blab about them. He knew that without knowing the end of the story, without the cross, they’d just get it wrong. Because when Jesus hung from the cross, he did so as the ultimate innocent victim, the world’s scapegoat as though to say This. Ends. Here.
You just can’t look at the cross and think “Wow, good thing Jesus did that for the people we’ve identified as being the problem around here.”
The healing love of God poured out through the death and resurrection of Christ which opens us up, sometimes even against our will, is for you and it’s for me and it’s for the redemption of all creation.
In a letter to a friend who was struggling with faith, Flannery O’Connor wrote, "What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe."
If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and just leave the rest to God. Amen.
(My thanks to Richard Russeth and Jody and Stephanie Olson for their willingness to talk to me this week about their experiences with Jesus and deafness and this particular text.)
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor living in Denver, Colorado, where she serves the emerging church, House for all Sinners and Saints. She blogs at www.nadiabolzweber.com and is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television.