Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18B), September 6, 2009. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Sutton, MA.
Healing the Senses
“Happy are they whose hope is in the LORD their God: who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them.” (Psalm 146:4b-5)
I bring you greetings from Grace Church in Amherst, where I serve as Priest Associate. Thank you for welcoming me here this morning. I’ve been invited to focus on the Gospel call to care for Creation, and we have some good material to work with in this morning’s readings. First I need to tell you that my husband and I have an old farmhouse in Ashfield, one of the hill-towns northwest of Amherst. During the summer we spend as many hours as we can in Ashfield, walking in the woods or by the beaver ponds. In those quiet interludes we look, and listen, and breathe, tuning ourselves to that buzzing, blooming, sensuous Creation of which we human creatures are so inextricably a part.
One summer day in Ashfield, as I was eating lunch on the back porch, a sparrow with a light-brown belly made a landing on a banister nearby. I held my spoon of yogurt in mid-air, frozen in place. Sparrow and I looked each other over, briefly taking each other in. I tried to imagine its experience of the world. I could see the bird’s sensitivity to every change how it noted the tiny moth that zigzagged past, the puff of a breeze, the chirp of a robin, the shadow of a passing cloud. Everything around the sparrow was alive and in motion. The small creature was alert, tuning itself to every shift, cocking its head, picking up the tiniest scent, sound, and movement — and making almost perceptible decisions in response. Should it eat the moth? Duck from danger? Linger a few moments longer?
When the sparrow saw that I did not move and seemed to pose no threat, it relaxed on the railing. It puffed its feathers and turned its 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 that I could perceive the sparrow’s sensitivity was to become more sensitive myself, to pay closer attention. I was not staring at the bird in some kind of fixed and rigid way. Instead I simply let my senses open, and perceived everything I could with an open heart. This act of perception and empathy filled me with wonder and quiet joy, for it seemed that briefly I had connected with this tiny creature whose consciousness was almost entirely foreign to mine, almost completely unknown. In those precious moments we were in relationship. Our two 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.” The psalm picks up the theme of healing and liberation “The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind” [bbllink]Psalm 146:7[/bbllink] and then we get to the story in St. Mark about Jesus curing the deaf mute.
It is a very physical healing, isn’t it? Unlike almost every other healing story in the Gospels, in this one Jesus does not heal so much through the power of speech as through the power of touch. The story gives every detail. Jesus does not just “lay his hands on” the man in some kind of vague, generic way. He puts his fingers in the man’s ears; he spits, and touches the man’s tongue. You can imagine the care with which he makes direct, even intimate contact with the man who has appealed to him for healing. You can imagine the tenderness in Jesus’ eyes, the clarity of his intention to set the man 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.
Like every biblical story, this one can be read on many levels. In the Church of England, the day on which this story was assigned was once popularly called “Ephphatha Sunday” and was dedicated to expressing special concern for people who have limited hearing or speech. But on a deeper level don’t we all need to have our senses healed? Take our ears, for instance. How often do we listen not just with the ears, but also with the heart? How often do we listen not just for what is being said but also for what is left unsaid, for what the person might long to say if only he or she felt safe enough to say it? How often do we listen with patience, not in order to grab a chance to get a word in edgewise, but in order to understand the other person’s point of view? Do we have ears like that?
And how clearly do we speak? Often we have something like a speech impediment when it comes to speaking words that are both loving and true, or when it comes to admitting that we blew it and that we are sorry, or when it comes to speaking out for social and environmental justice. What a grace it would be for Jesus to come among us today, to place his hand on our ears and to touch his own tongue and then ours, so that our ears would be opened at last and so that our words would be filled with his spirit and truth!
As our senses are healed, we begin to relate in a new way not only to other human beings, but also to the other-than-human world. At least that has been true for me. When I renew my conscious intention to look more clearly, to listen more patiently, to pay attention with a more finely tuned sensitivity, I discover that I am created for relationship not only with human beings, but also with everything around me wind and stone, sparrow and maple tree. I wonder if we are fully human only by contact with what is other-than-human.
Communion with all God’s creatures opens us to communion with God. But the more we attune ourselves to the glory of the natural world, the more we can’t help seeing that its glory is in peril. There are many environmental issues to be concerned about, but the gravest and most urgent is climate change. Unless we address climate change effectively and fast, we won’t have a chance to handle any of the other pressing social and environmental issues that we presently face. In just the last couple of years, scientists have figured out that the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 350 parts per million. If we want to keep living on a habitable planet, if we want human civilization to continue flourishing has it has for the past 10,000 years, if we want to pass on to our children and their children something like the beautiful, diverse, and lively earth into which we were born, then we have to keep the global level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere no higher than 350 parts per million. What is the level now? Close to 390, and climbing.
If you do nothing else today, I hope you will go to Bill McKibben’s Website, 350.org. Click on the box that says People, and on the drop-down menu, click on the word Faith. There you can add your name to the Interfaith Call for 350, a call to world leaders from religious people around the world to set us on a path to bring the level of carbon in the atmosphere down to 350 parts per million. I hope that St. John’s will also do what Grace Church is doing: sign up at 350.org and join thousands of people around the world in creating a public event on October 24, the International Day of Climate Action. At Grace Church we will hold a rally on the Amherst town common that will involve ringing our church bell 350 times and having 350 people dressed up as maple-trees do a maple tree “die-in,” since our New England maple trees, with their delicious syrup and spectacular fall foliage, are among the many living creatures that will not survive if we don’t change course fast.
In a moment we will share Eucharist together, and will receive strength and solace in the holy bread and wine that we take in our hands. The bread is made of wheat; the wine is made of grapes, and both are made from earth and sun, from rainwater and clouds, from the labor of farmers. In the Eucharist, Christ Jesus comes to us in bread and wine, and God gives God’s self to us through the natural world. We take in what is natural and we take in Christ. When Jesus, and every priest after him, gathers up and blesses the bread and wine, is not nature itself being blessed? When we stretch out our hands to receive the bread are we not declaring, Yes, I accept that nature itself is blessed by God, that nature itself bears Christ’s presence to us, that nature’s wounds the broken bread disclose the wounds of Christ? As we receive the Eucharist, Jesus is whispering in our ears, in our minds and hearts, “Ephphatha. Be opened.” Jesus is healing our connections with each other and with all Creation, and in the strength of this bread and wine we are sent into the world to proclaim God’s love wherever we go.