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St. Paul’s – Proper 18 – 9/5/21

What is your response to what is going on in the world?  As I look at the heartbreaking images coming out of Afghanistan and Haiti, read reports of American ICUs once again filling to capacity with Covid patients, smell the smoke of catastrophic wildfires in northern California, and follow Hurricane Ida’s destructive path,…..What is your response….where do you turn?. I will share mine in a minute.

Listen carefully to the world and what can you hear…..The unseen and unheard sighs of a tired mother in her laundry room…..The sighs of refugees forced out of their cultures and nations by violence….. The sighs of breadwinners weighed down by the burden of providing for their families….the exhausted sighs of single parents,…the labored sighs of the sick and dying….the nurses, doctors and EMT’s fighting COVID and accepting with sighs of compassion so many patients who say I didn’t get the vaccine/I didn’t believe in it….the sighs of firefighters who are working without the breaks and compensation they need.

And so I sigh and turn to the gospels…..If we turn to the Gospels……what do we hear and see? In this week’s Gospel, a crowd in the region of the Decapolis brings a deaf man who has an impediment in his speech to Jesus for healing.  Jesus takes the man aside, puts his fingers into the man’s ears, spits, and touches the man’s tongue.  Then he looks up to heaven, sighs, and says to the man, Be opened.  Immediately, Mark’s Gospel reports, the man’s ears are opened, his tongue is released, and he is able to speak plainly.  The story ends with the man proclaiming the miracle far and wide — despite Jesus’s order that he keep it a secret — and the crowds expressing astonishment at Jesus, who, in their view, has done everything well.

There is much to capture the imagination in this brief, vivid story.  What caught my attention were two odd little words at its heart: He sighed.  Jesus sighed.  (In some translations, he murmurs or groans.)  Before he performs a miracle, before he heals a man who needs his help, the Son of God looks up to heaven and sighs.  Why?

Debbie Thomas says it is intriguing because we’re living through times when the possibility of a divine sigh resonates so deeply.  I can relate to it.  I can feel it in my body, from my lungs down to my toes. Exhausted sighs.  Bewildered sighs.  Impatient, frustrated, angry sighs.  Jesus looks up to heaven and sighs.  Thank God. But why does he sigh?  Some possibilities — or, some reflections on the Gospels’ miracle stories, and what they might mean for us, here and now:

I wonder if Jesus sighs because he’s misunderstood.  We know from the witness of the Gospels that Jesus’s mission is to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God.  He comes to teach and to embody what the love of God, the forgiveness of God, the justice of God, and the salvation of God look like.  He comes to point beyond himself to the Creator, Deliverer, Defender, and Liberator of all. Everything he says and does is meant to point people in the direction of his Father.

We also know from the witness of the Gospels that many (if not most) of the people who encounter Jesus in his day don’t comprehend this mission at all.  They flock to him for magic.  Spectacle.  Drama.  Fireworks.  They mistake his signs for ends in themselves.  They adore him as the One Who Heals, but shy away when he reveals himself as One Who Calls, One Who Convicts, One Who Leads, and One Who Transforms.  They embrace him as a conquering hero when he rides a donkey into Jerusalem, but abandon him as a shameful criminal when he acquiesces to a cross, embodying the searing Gospel reality that we must give in order to receive, lose in order to gain, surrender in order to triumph, and die in order to live.

Maybe Jesus sighs in this week’s story because he is the Messiah — the Anointed One, the Son of God, the Savior — who knows that the coming of the kingdom of God is a slow, subtle, arduous, messy, and profoundly costly business.  It doesn’t come with the waving of wands and the snapping of fingers.  It comes in quiet and often secret ways.  It comes by the power of God, yes, but it comes when we take up our crosses and join God in pursuing the good, the compassionate, the risky, and the holy.  It comes when we love and follow Christ, not just as our friend and role model, but as our Lord.

And yet “the crowds” (that is, all of us), so often insist on seeing Jesus as nothing more than a peddler of quick fixes.  We want him to be a magician — sometimes for earnest, aching, worthy reasons.  But that is not who he is.  He is not a performer in need of spectators.

I wonder if Jesus sighs because “cures” (as we narrowly define them), are not the point.  Wholeness is the point.  Restoring the lonely, the isolated, and the ostracized to healthy community is the point.  Human flourishing in all of its rich and varied facets is the point.

I know that we (the historic and global church) have failed at times to understand and practice this truth.  We have patronized, pitied, ignored, and sometimes mistreated our sisters and brothers who are differently abled than we are.  We’ve treated them as second-class citizens.  We’ve blocked their access to community, intimacy, worship, and prophetic authority.  We’ve prayed for God to cure them, instead of doing the harder and more beautiful work of being Christ’s hands and feet, eyes and ears, for those who experience the world differently than we do.

I notice in this week’s story that Jesus pulls the deaf man aside, away from the people who initially request his healing.  I wonder if Jesus does this to give the man space to articulate his own hopes and desires.  What does he want?  Who does he think Jesus is?  What word does he need to hear from the Messiah who stands before him?  Does his understanding of his body and its abilities align with the crowd’s?  With Jesus’s?  Or does he have his own story to tell about his deafness?

I believe that Jesus restores this particular man’s ability to hear and to speak because curing him is the only way to make him whole in his specific time and place.  In a culture that equates illness and disability with moral failure, in a context where a person’s individual identity is inextricably linked to his familial and religious identities, Jesus recognizes that the man standing in front of him cannot thrive as he is.  In his world, his deafness and muteness are death sentences.  So Jesus makes the man whole.

And yet Jesus sighs first.  Is the sigh an expression of frustration with the crowds who won’t see beyond the man’s deafness?  Is Jesus longing for the crowds to experience healing as well?  Healing from their toxic assumptions about disability and morality?  Healing from their own smug sense of superiority and well-being?  Healing from their apathy towards the least of these?

I wonder if we can hear Jesus’s sigh from where we stand today.  What would it look like for us to become better agents of human flourishing?  What would it look like to recognize that in God’s eyes, all of us are in need of healing, wholeness, deliverance, and transformation?  That no one — absolutely no one —  should seek the kingdom of God and expect to walk away unchanged?

I wonder if Jesus sighs because he grieves the distortion of the good news.  As soon as Jesus heals the deaf man, he asks the crowd — orders the crowd — to keep the miracle to themselves.  In part, this is because Jesus needs more time.  More time to preach, to heal, to teach, and to love.  He doesn’t want his growing fame to inflame his enemies and hasten his death.

But I wonder if he also tells the crowds to keep quiet because he’s worried about the stories they disseminate.  He’s not interested in amassing a fan club.  He doesn’t want to be admired; he wants to be known, recognized, loved, and followed.  If anything, he seems baffled and even irritated by the astonishment of the crowds who see his healing of the deaf man as nothing more than a brilliant display of pyrotechnics.

I notice that when Jesus restores the man’s speech and hearing, he does so by inviting the man to be opened.  Not simply cured or healed.  Opened.  What does it mean to be opened?  Does it mean to surrender?  To be surprised?  To let go?  To become vulnerable?  To make room?  To give birth?  To unclench?  To become hospitable?  To live fully?

The healing work of Jesus is always more layered than it looks.  Its roots run deep, and its implications run wide.  I wonder if Jesus sighs because he knows how little the crowds understand about the true opening he longs to enact in their midst.  I wonder if he sighs because he’s painfully aware of how his healing stories will be peddled and packaged, dissected and deconstructed.  Stripped of nuance and reduced to formula.

I always think of God as one who commands or even one who weeps. God, who makes the dead to rise and walk at the sound of his voice. I always think of God, who with the words of his mouth created the universe . . . but a God who sighs?

We all do our share of sighing. I sighed all week when the scramble to provide safety and shelter to Afghans was foremost on many peoples minds and hearts including my own. I sighed last week when I heard more stories of people along our border concerned about their safety waiting in Mexico to have their asylum case heard when they were running from the same unhealthy and unsafe places they used to call home. I sighed last week as desperate searches continued for survivors of Hurricane eIda and those who did not survive.  We all do our share of sighing.

If you have children, you’ve no doubt sighed. If you have ever been faced with temptation and failed, you probably sighed. If you have ever let you heart be open and built up by the actions of someone only to be let down, you have sighed. If you have ever had your motives questioned. . .

What we are talking about here is not the sigh of relief or even a sigh of joy; no what is described here is a combination of frustration and sadness. That point you find yourself between a fit of anger and a burst of tears. This is the sigh that Jesus let escape that day.

Humans were not created to be separated from God; therefore, Jesus sighs. Humans were not created imperfect, inhabited by evil; therefore, Jesus sighs. Our conversations with God were never intended to depend upon a translator; therefore, the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf.

When Jesus looked into the eyes of that deaf and speech impeded man that day the only thing he could do was sigh. It was never meant to be this way, you can almost hear him saying. Your ears weren’t made to be deaf, your tongue wasn’t made to stumble.

Jesus’ sighs are the reason we have hope today.Had he not sighed, had he not felt the burden for what was never intended, we would forever remain in our helpless condition. He could have simply said, You are all a bunch of sinners and deserve your misery, and he would be right.

But, he didn’t. Jesus’ sigh assures us that God still groans for his people. Longs for us to be whole again. Groans for the day when all sighs will cease. When things will once again be as he intended for them to be.

If nothing else, I am grateful to know that Jesus’s prayers include sighs.  Sighs borne of longing, love, sorrow, and hope, all mingled together.  Because if there’s anything the world needs right now, it is a Gospel of hope.  Fierce, creative, tenacious, and daring hope.  Precisely the kind of hope Jesus offers.  But that hope must be grounded in the truth of who God is and what the kingdom of God actually looks like.  

In the perilous times we live in, a great deal depends on how we — the church — represent the hope at the heart of Jesus’s life and message.  Will we sell easy astonishment?  Will we peddle cheap fixes?  Will we promise magic?  Or will we invite the world to be opened?  Opened to surrender?  Discipleship?  Sacrifice?  Obedience?

This week, as our prayers, petitions, and sighs join those of Christ for the life of this world, may we trust in the one who says, Be opened.  May we listen to him, and be healed.