Sermon: XV Pentecost (18b)

Patrick Allen on September 11, 2012


XV Pentecost (18b)
Mk 7.31-37
9 Sept 2012
Fr. Patrick Allen

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In this morning’s Gospel lesson, St. Mark shows us the miraculous healing of a deaf-mute, a man who could neither hear, nor as a consequence, speak.  St. Mark no doubt intended his readers immediately to see this healing as evidence of our Lord’s fulfillment of Israel’s messianic hope.  We’ve heard that sure and certain hope expressed this morning by the prophet Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson, and we’ve sung that hope, Charles Wesley’s great paraphrase of Isaiah, in our sequence hymn:

Hear him, ye deaf, His praise, ye dumb
Your loosened tongues employ
Ye blind behold your Savior come
And leap, ye lame, for joy!

Mark intends us to make that connection, to see in the person of Jesus God’s action to redeem his people, as he had promised by the Hebrew prophets of old.  In the large sense, that’s what this passage, this miracle account, is about.  

And that’s a theme I’d like to develop, but that would take a good bit of time, and I’m eager to get to the beach!  So, as it happens, embedded within that revelation of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah of God is a further revelation of that Messiah’s, and of that God’s, own heart, and it’s instructive for our own approach to life as we actually encounter it in a fallen world.  

And here it is, that embedded revelation:  Having taken the deaf and mute man aside privately, and touching him, we read that Jesus looking up to heaven, sighed.  

Jesus sighed.  What does that mean; what does that mean for us, and for our salvation?

Well, if you spend any time at all watching sports on TV. or listening to sports talk radio, or obsessively reading Sports Illustrated cover to cover every Thursday evening - which is to say, if you’re a red-blooded, right-thinking American - you are well aware of a particular cliché, a catchphrase, that has crept into - nay, exploded into - prominence in the American vernacular over the past decade or so, especially among athletes, coaches, and their assorted hangers-on.  The catch phrase is, “It is what it is.”  

And of course now it’s not just athletes:  presidential spokespersons, automobile mechanics, doctors, lawyers, indian chiefs, and all sorts of persons, when confronted with some bit of slightly bad news - say, a sprained ankle or a vice-president who has just shot a fellow quail hunter in the chest - when then queried about their response, reflexively,  almost inevitably, will reply, “well, it is what it is.”

“It is what it is.”  In the main, I think this is just a way to put off the questioner with an answer that is really no answer at all.  But beneath that evasion, there is the attempt to say something more, to express a sort of stoic indifference to a difficult fate.  

Folks want to be, or at least appear, “stoic.”  The philosopher Epictetus summed up the essential Stoic virtue this way: "Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.”  Or, as the Roman Emperor and thoroughgoing Stoic Marcus Aurelius observed, "How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything that happens in life!"  (By the way, if you spend 10 minutes on Wikipedia, you can pretend to sound like you know something about classical philosophy, too!)  The Stoics said, “This is what the situation is, I cannot change it, so I’ll play the hand I’ve been dealt.”  In other words, “It is what it is.”

That is one approach to life in a fallen world.  Mere acceptance.  It is what it is.  It has the appearance of a kind of bravery, and it has proven a powerful approach.  It was an important approach in the Greco-Roman world; it’s not too different from the extinguishing of desire urged by the Buddha; it loomed large in 20th century literature - look, for instance, at the heroes of Ernest Hemingway’s novels, who whittle their emotions down to a flat line and spit in the eye of fate, good or bad.

But it is only a powerful approach in a world where there is no hope of anything better, and it is only a powerful approach for those willing essentially to define our humanity down to the individual and his will, forsaking all others but holding one’s head high in the face of, as Tolstoy called it, “a stupid death after a stupid life” (in A. Schmemann, For the Life of the World).  It is an approach suited to those who fancy themselves able to “confide in their own strength.”  But it is, really, a counsel of despair.

Well, our Lord shows us another way.  “It is what it is” is not the reaction of Jesus to life in this world.  And for that we may be thankful.

Confronted with this poor man who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech, Jesus does not, at least by gesture, urge him to Stoic acceptance of his sorry lot, signing to him to keep his head up and be strong. He doesn’t say “I’m sorry” and walk away.

Jesus heals the man, of course; we expect that sort of thing from Jesus. And in the course of that healing he touches the man’s ears, and he spits and touches the man’s tongue - which is to say he touches what he intends to heal - and then our Lord looks up to heaven, a gesture of prayer this deaf and mute man can understand, and then, we read, he sighed.  

And that sigh, that wordless exhalation, is eloquent.  It is the entire content of Jesus’ prayer, and it speaks love to the deaf mute and to us.

That sigh speaks of an eager longing, a desire.  Jesus’ sigh is an aspiration for something good that is, as yet, lacking.  It is the expression of dissatisfaction, of sadness, even of anger, with the way things are, and deep longing for the way thing ought to be.  (Benedict XVI)

St. Paul also uses this same expression in his epistle to the Romans.  It’s usually translated as “groan” in our English versions, but it’s the same word.  He writes that “we ourselves...groan [we sigh] inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”  Again, it is the heart’s longing, stretching forward to, healing and wholeness and peace.  It is the heart reaching out to God’s intent for our full humanity, “our souls and bodies.”

Jesus touched this poor, afflicted man, and looking up to heaven, he sighed.

Writing in the English newspaper The Guardian last week, the journalist Francis Spufford commented on some advertising an organization of atheists has been doing.  Down the sides of London buses they’ve paid to have painted the slogan, “There’s probably no God.  So stop worrying and enjoy your life.”  He notes that among the manifold problems with the slogan (not least among them just how much existential weight to place on that “probably”), perhaps the most problematic is that it accepts uncritically the pernicious presumptions of modern marketing.  Spufford writes,

“If you based your knowledge of the human species exclusively on adverts, you'd think that the normal condition of humanity was to be a good-looking single person between 20 and 35, with excellent muscle-definition and/or an excellent figure, and a large disposable income. And you'd think the same thing if you got your information exclusively from the atheist bus... These plastic beings don't need anything that they can't get by going shopping.”

Spufford then goes on to make this observation:  

“But suppose, as the atheist bus goes by, you are poverty-stricken, or desperate for a job, or a drug addict, or social services have just taken away your child. The bus tells you that there's probably no God so you should stop worrying and enjoy your life, and now the slogan is not just bitterly inappropriate in mood. What it means, if it's true, is that anyone who isn't enjoying themselves is entirely on their own.” (F. Spufford, “The Trouble with Atheists.” 31 August 2012)

Or, we might say, what the atheist bus says to the sufferer is, simply, “Tough.  It is what it is.”
That’s some modern British atheists.  And in the ancient world, Epictetus and the Stoics taught that a man should never be disturbed by anything external to himself, to his own will.

Well, Jesus is disturbed.  He is moved.  He sighs in personal distress for this man’s situation and in longing for his deliverance.  And that sigh speaks - to the deaf mute, to the poverty stricken, to the addict, and also to the gossip and the liar and adulterer and the stingy - the whole lot of us.  

That sigh speaks; it reveals; it shows us Jesus’ heart of love, the love and the longing and, yes, even the anger - the righteous, holy anger that is his opposition to all that is opposed to love - the heart of love that moves him to seek and save the lost, to loose the prisoners and bind up the broken-hearted, to touch and to heal this man who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech - to fulfill, in short, his Messianic vocation.  

This sigh shows us his refusal to be satisfied with what is and his determination to press forward to achieve for us and in us what ought to be.  This sigh is for us and our salvation, showing us the heart that loves us even to the end, even to death on the cross.

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