What do you do when you are in pain? I suspect that for most of us the inclination is to isolate, to withdraw. This is, of course, understandable but dangerous. Understandable because we really don’t like others to see us when we’re not at our best — feeling weak, vulnerable, or even ashamed. Dangerous because in this solitude we often can’t hear anything but the voices in our head which may be perpetuating our withdrawal, or telling us we are somehow to blame for our troubles, or signaling that there is no hope. There’s a medical term, “guarding” — an involuntary reaction to protect an area of pain. It’s counterintuitive to allow someone to touch the spot that is hurting. It’s natural to retreat.
Today we meet a man who doubtless has spent much time in isolation, both voluntary (as he was hurting) and involuntary (as his disability would cause many to shun him).
Even when in the company of others, he is unable to hear what they are saying, or to articulate his own thoughts or needs. Moreover, there are many who believe that his inability to hear, or to speak, is caused by sin — perhaps his, perhaps his parents. It’s a grim situation, and one that appears to be insolvable.
But somehow word of Jesus, word of hope, has reached the folks where this man lives, and they take it upon themselves to bring the poor soul to the healing teacher. This is perhaps one of the most critical themes of this story: It’s the community that presents the man to Jesus; yet the healing takes place privately, person-to-person: eye to eye, heart to heart.
We know the outcome: Jesus touches the man — touches him right where he likely feels the most vulnerable, in his unhearing ears; on his seemingly useless tongue. And he is healed.
This intimate encounter would not have happened without the courage and compassion of the community: compassion for one of their members, and the courage to acknowledge that his need for healing had an effect on each member of the community.
It is both the initial role of the community, and the one-on-oneness of the story, that offer a way for us to address the suffering and injustice that surrounds us. A way for our ears to be opened to God’s desire that we should hear “the implanted word” as the Letter of James calls it; we must be not a “hearer that forgets but a doer that acts.”
James further declares that a central role of “religion that is pure and undefiled before God … is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction…”
The orphans and widows that surround us, at every level of society, are not simply children without parents and women whose spouse has died. No. They are children separated from migrant parents and held in crowded, makeshift camps; they are students in schools with tattered textbooks and exhausted teachers; they are children are in families who don’t know where the next meal is coming from; they are children who are exploited by adults to fulfill base desires. The widows are women who have been betrayed by inequities in the workplace, in the economy, in relationships. The orphans and widows are displaced men and women of all ages driven from their homelands by famine or fear; who are hard-pressed to protect themselves against the “filthiness and rank growth of wickedness” that affect us as individuals and sully our most precious institutions — the church, the government, academia, cultural establishments.
It’s understandable that these myriad injustices (and you know this is just a partial list) may lead to an overwhelming desire to hunker down, stop reading the news, unplug from social media, and wait for it all to get better. To deafen ourselves to the clamor; to be mute when we feel impotent to bring about change.
But we’re better than that: we must be better than that. We must confront, we must engage, we must actively seek out those hurting and vulnerable places, those rancid pools of injustice and cruelty, that mar God’s creation and endanger our very souls. The television personality Dr. Phil states it in simple terms: “You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.”
The intersection of courage and compassion is where hope can be found. It is political, and it is personal. It is internal, it is external. So here are a few more words about courage and compassion.
Nelson Mandela reminds us that “courage [is] not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” And the actress Dorothy Bernard (1890-1955) defines courage as “fear that has said its prayers.”
Then there’s lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who has based his work on compassion — he has spent decades fighting poverty and challenging discrimination. In 1994, he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, and those trapped in the furthest reaches of our criminal justice system.
To address some of the ills that beset society, Stevenson says, we must get “proximate” to suffering and understand the nuanced experiences of those who suffer from and experience inequality. Stevenson believes that “if you are willing to get closer to people who are suffering, you will find the power to change the world.”
And that’s exactly what Jesus did — what Jesus does, isn’t it? He is not a spectator; he gets close to those who are suffering, in order to change the world. He is not a long-distance healer; he reaches out and touches. Looking to heaven he takes a deep breath, receives into his body our suffering, and intercedes to God the Father with sighs too deep for words. Then, he looks in the tear-filled eye and says, “Ephphatha, be opened,” and touches the unhearing ear and the silent tongue with his hands. He does this so we may fight our own internal demons, those insistent voices of inferiority or superiority, of guilt or blamelessness, of desire or denial. So that we have the courage and the compassion to get proximate to the places the world needs to be opened, to be healed. So that we can seek out the outcast, the neglected, the scorned and bring them to the healing teacher.
Where does the root of your hurt or sorrow lie? Where do you long to be touched and restored to wholeness? What pain or shame separates you from the people around you?
When you open your hands to receive the body and blood, think of those other, wounded hands reaching out to you. When you hear the words “…my body…my blood…” listen also for the invitation “Ephphatha — be opened.” Be opened to vulnerability. Be opened to compassion. Be opened to courage. Be opened to hope. Be opened to God’s deepest desire for you, and for the world. Amen.