Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18B), September 9, 2018
Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas
Trinity Parish, Seattle, WA

Healing Earth: When the eyes of the blind are opened

Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10, 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

What a blessing to be with you this morning! Thank you, Jeff for welcoming my husband, Robert Jonas, and me. I serve as Missioner for Creation Care in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and in the United Church of Christ across Massachusetts. I travel from place to place, speaking about our call as followers of Jesus to protect God’s Creation and to re-weave the web of life. (If you want to know more about what I’m up to, you can visit my Website, I know that here at Trinity Parish, you have a history of working to protect the living world that God entrusted to our care, and I am deeply thankful for that.

With the Rev Jeffrey Gill (Rector, Trinity Parish Episcopal Church, Seattle)
Let’s start with a story. Jonas and I have an old farmhouse in the hills of western Massachusetts. We like to hike in the woods and walk beside the ponds as we soak up the sights and sounds of the natural world. One summer day, as I was eating lunch on the porch, a sparrow landed on a railing nearby. I held my spoon in mid-air and didn’t move a muscle. Sparrow and I looked each other over, taking each other in. I tried to imagine what it was like to be a sparrow. I could see how sensitive the sparrow was – how she noticed the moth zigzagging past, the gust of wind, the shadow of a passing cloud. Everything around the sparrow was alive and in motion. The small creature was alert, tuning herself to every shift, cocking her head, picking up the tiniest scent, sound, and movement, and making almost perceptible decisions in response. Should she eat the moth? Duck from danger? Linger a while longer?

When Sparrow saw that I wasn’t moving and evidently posed no threat, she relaxed on the railing. She puffed her feathers and turned her head away to preen, as if to say, “I know you are there but right now I feel safe.” It was a kind of subtle, non-verbal and mutual communication. My presence was affecting Bird and Bird’s presence was affecting me. The only way I could perceive the sparrow’s sensitivity was to become more sensitive myself, to pay closer attention. I wasn’t staring at the bird in some kind of fixed and rigid way. Instead I simply kept my gaze soft and receptive, and opened my senses to perceive everything I could. The simple act of gazing with interest and empathy filled me with wonder and a quiet joy, for it seemed that I was briefly connecting with a tiny creature whose consciousness was almost entirely foreign to mine, almost completely unknown. In those precious moments we were in relationship. Our worlds overlapped.

I think of that encounter when I come to today’s readings and hear Isaiah’s exuberant poem about the transforming power of God: “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” In the fullness of time, God will heal our eyes and ears and hearts, will make the lame “leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (Isaiah 35:4-7a). The psalm picks up the theme of healing and liberation – “The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind” (Psalm 146:7) – and then we get to the story in Mark’s Gospel about Jesus healing the deaf mute.

It is a very physical healing, isn’t it? Unlike most of the other healing stories, in this one Jesus doesn’t heal so much through the power of speech as through the power of touch. The story gives every detail. Jesus doesn’t just “lay his hands on” the man in some kind of vague, generic way. He actually puts his fingers in the man’s ears; he spits and then touches the man’s tongue. We can imagine the care with which he makes direct, even intimate contact with the man who has appealed to him for healing. We can imagine the tenderness in Jesus’ eyes, the clarity of his intention to set this person free. And then Jesus looks up to heaven – seeking and gathering in the power of God – and he sighs, as if releasing that power, breathing out the ruach, the Spirit, the breath of God. As he breathes out that power he says a single word, which the text gives in its original Aramaic, “Ephphatha” – that is, “Be opened” – and at once the man’s ears are opened, his tongue is released, and he speaks plainly.

Of course we can take this story literally and make it relevant only to people with limited sight and hearing, but on a deeper level don’t we all need to have our senses healed? Especially when it comes to humans finding our rightful place in the natural world, isn’t it time for the eyes of the blind to be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped?

The glory of trees
For we have been blind to so much! I know that I sure have. Growing up, I thought that homo sapiens was the only species that God cared about and that Jesus was interested only in people. Not incidentally, I also thought that humans were the only species that was smart. How wrong I was! It turns out that our fellow beings are more intelligent than I ever suspected, from chimpanzees to dogs, elephants, and birds, from dolphins and whales to even the lowly octopus. According to a book called The Soul of an Octopus, octopus display a range of personalities, solve problems, play jokes, and share affection with marine scientists by holding “hands” with them. And it’s not just our finned, feathered, four-legged and, yes, eight-legged fellow beings that are more intelligent than we knew – so, too, are plants. Books like The Hidden Life of Trees argue that trees are social beings that can count, learn, remember, and warn each other of impending danger.  I just finished a wonderful new novel by Richard Powers, The Overstory, which explores the intelligence of trees. The author explains in an interview that generally we don’t pay much attention to trees and that most of us can’t tell one tree from another, because the human brain evolved, he says, “to be blind to things that don’t look like us.” But, he says, through “the miracle of awareness” we begin to see much more.

When our eyes are opened and our ears unstopped, we begin to see what scientists are showing us, what mystics the world over have long proclaimed, and what indigenous peoples have never forgotten: we inhabit a world full of mystery and intelligence, a sacred, living world full of marvel and intricacy in which everything is connected. As the Good Book says, when God contemplates the world God made, God finds it “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Today’s theologians are reminding us that God loves the whole creation, not just us, and that Jesus came to redeem and reconcile all beings, not just human beings (Ephesians 4:9-10; Colossians 1:17, 19-20).

When our senses are healed, we relate in new ways to our non-human kin. As we look more closely at the world around us, as we listen more patiently and pay more attention, we discover that we are created for relationship not only with our fellow human beings, but also with everything else – with sparrow and fir tree, with ground hog and sea gull, with cloud and wind, water and stone. It seems that we become fully human only in relationship to what is greater than ourselves, what is other than ourselves.

When God opens our eyes and ears, we perceive not only the beauty and the preciousness of creation – we also perceive the perilous state of our wounded planet. We hear the cry of the Earth, the cry of the poor and the unseen. We look around and see mounting evidence that burning fossils fuels is scorching the Earth and disrupting the global climate. My heart goes out to all of you here in Seattle who have been choking on smoke from wildfires that apparently is equivalent to breathing about seven cigarettes a day. I hear that this is the third summer in a row in which this city has been blanketed with air pollution from massive wildfires, and that this is the worst summer yet. As you know, some of the smoke is drifting up from California, which is undergoing a record-breaking season of wildfires. Climate change is raising temperatures, which makes heat waves more intense and more frequent, dries out trees and soil, and makes wildfires spread. As Jonas and I left New England, smoke from the fires raging in the Pacific Northwest was causing a visible haze across the sky.

What we’re experiencing here in Seattle connects with what’s happening all over the world. This summer, record-breaking temperatures gripped the globe from Japan to Algeria, from Canada to Greece. The global heat wave even set the Arctic Circle on fire. This year is on pace to be among the four hottest years on record. The other three were 2015, 2016, and 2017.

Even though I brace myself against the latest headlines, I am still shaken as climate news comes in: the ancient cedar trees of Lebanon are going down, ancient baobab trees are collapsing, and whole forests of trees in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana have died. Coral reefs are bleaching and dying, and just about everything on Earth that is frozen – glaciers, the polar ice caps – is melting.

Yet despite these signs of accelerating distress, and with more scorching heat to come if we don’t change course fast, the powers-that-be relentlessly push forward with business as usual, drilling for more oil, expanding pipeline construction, cutting down forests, and generally acting as if the Earth were a private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale.

When God opens our blind eyes and unstops our deaf ears, we see and hear the world’s beauty.  We see and feel its searing pain, and the injustice of the harm. Now comes the next miracle of healing: God opens the mouths of the mute and “the tongue of the speechless” (Isaiah 35:6). Jesus not only “makes the deaf to hear” – he also makes “the mute to speak” (Mark 7:37). And we are speaking – with our bodies and our words, with our voices and our votes, speaking up for clean air and clear water, speaking up for endangered orca and salmon, speaking up for the ancient forests and glaciers, speaking up for low-income and minority communities that have no voice at the table where decisions are made.

Yesterday people across the country and around the world, including Seattle, held rallies and marches for a global day of action called “Rise for Climate.” People of faith and spirit are rising up to confront the powers-that-be and to awaken corporate and elected leaders from the fantasy that we can continue with business as usual. Some of us carry out peaceful, disciplined acts of civil disobedience to stop construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure. Some of us lobby for policies that support clean renewable energy. Some of us push for carbon pricing. Those of us who went to college urge our alma mater to divest from fossil fuels. Those of us with means cut back sharply on our use of fossil fuels – maybe we fly less, drive less, and eat less meat. Those of us who are white and privileged listen to the voices of people of color, indigenous peoples, and the poor, knowing that they are God’s beloved and the ones hit first and hardest by climate change. Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive.

Tomorrow I head to San Francisco, where leaders from around the world and all sectors of society will gather for a Global Climate Action Summit to launch new commitments to realize the historic Paris Agreement. Hundreds of affiliated events will be held in the Bay area, including a host of faith-based events. At Grace Cathedral I’ll be speaking on a panel about why religion matters to the movement for climate justice. Why does religion matter? Why do faith communities matter? Why do you and I matter? Because we serve the Lord of life! Because this very day, Jesus is carrying out miracles of healing, opening our eyes and ears and releasing our tongues, so that in our lips and in our lives we make it abundantly clear that life and not death will have the last word.

What new steps to protect God’s Creation do you feel led to take as individuals and as a community?

Thank you for keeping the faith.