Archive for September, 2009|Monthly archive page

THE TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B

Isaiah 35:4-7a

James 2:1-5

Mark 7:31-37

If you have never experienced any of the negatives in Isaiah’s prophecy in the first reading, you won’t rejoice with the relief he urges the hearer to hope for.  The prophet speaks to those whose hearts are frightened. If you are not frightened, if you feel safe and secure, if you are hale and hearty and have all your needs met, the prophecy is not for you.  When there is plenty of water the thought of streams bursting forth in the desert will elicit a far different response in you from that evoked in the heart of one who knows what it means to thirst and wonder if rain will ever fall again.  Imagine how you would hear that then the lame (will) leap like a stag if you were confined to the use of a wheelchair or had no real use of your limbs.

The poetry is lush and the bounty promised, lavish.  God is a god whose love knows no limits, a god who is present even in the direst circumstances.  Have no fear, God will rescue and deliver.  The world will be restored to the idyllic state that it had at the beginning of creation before sin entered.  That’s what Jesus brings.  At least that is what the gospel reading says Jesus brings.  It is the perceived lack of that transformation implied in the Messianic Age that prevents many from being able to believe.  For the wealthy and secure there is no issue.  They might think they have already what the Age promises.

Do you remember the scene in last week’s gospel, the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees?  It’s clear that Mark wants us to see that the Pharisees who had the ability to see, hear, and speak refused to do all three regarding the significance of Jesus’ words and deeds and instead chose to strain over the minutiae of the law.  This week Jesus has moved away from Tyre and gone by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, into the district of the Decapolis. In other words, Jesus has left the Jewish community and is now among the Gentiles, those very ones the law declared to be unclean.

It is obvious that the people of the area have heard about Jesus.  The word has gotten out about his preaching, teaching, and marvelous actions.  As soon as Jesus enters the district, crowds come out to meet him.  You can like it to the turnout at the airport when a championship team returns home with the trophy of victory, or, when a celebrity visits the city.  The adulation knows no bounds.  So it is with Jesus as the people immediately bring to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment. Again obviously, the man hasn’t heard about Jesus for himself.  And he isn’t able to speak for himself in terms of his needs and desires.  The people do those things for him as they present the disabled man to Jesus and beg him to lay his hands on him. There are no witnesses to what happens next since Jesus takes the man away by himself and leaves the crowds behind.

Jesus does more than lay his hands on the man.  He puts his fingers into the man’s ears.  He spits into his hand and touches the man’s tongue.  (I’ve never seen anyone wince at the proclamation of that detail.  Strange.)  Those two actions do not bring about the healing.  In stead, Jesus groans.  Whenever that word appears as a reaction from Jesus it means that something very draining, even exhausting, is happening.  A tremendous energy is going out of him.  Ephphatha! I think said doesn’t quite describe the sound that came from Jesus lips.  It certainly wasn’t a whisper.  I’d bet it was more of a shout.  The command uttered brings about deliverance and immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly. In other words, there was transformation as Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus.  The ears of the deaf will be cleared.  The tongue of the mute will sing.

The crowd is ecstatic.  The response Jesus had hoped for from the Pharisees comes from the Gentile crowd.  Strange, then, isn’t it that Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about what had happened.  Why do you suppose that is?  Because as thrilled as they are, they still do not understand what they have experienced.  Nor will they until after the Resurrection, until the story is complete.

What are the challenges for us who hear these readings proclaimed?  They are many and primarily dictate the kind of community our parishes should be.  Let’s hope we do not have to spend much time on the admonitions that James puts before us in the second reading.  How much fawning over the wealthy and powerful is evidenced when we gather?  Are we so overawed with those splendidly clad in the latest fashions and with Rolex watches on their wrists, those who can be the source of our greatest financial support, that we do not notice the poor and provide a place for them?  Those attitudes would not describe Jesus’ practices of table fellowship.  The current practice of turning individuals away from Holy Communion because their political views are suspect and they are deemed to be sinners would never bring about against a parish the allegation leveled against Jesus: This man welcomes sinners and eats with them. James asks: have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs?

The crowds brought the disabled man to Jesus.  The crowds had a role in the man’s healing.  They prepared the way for it, tilled the soil, so to speak, so that the seed could be planted and the harvest follow.  That is the role the parish should play in assisting people to faith.  The assembly should be the type of community that can only be explained by faith.  That is the attitude they bring to the Liturgy of the Word.  It is the attitude they bring to the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  The seeker comes to understand what faith means by experiencing the faith of a believing community.  And in turn the community brings the seeker to Jesus for him to lay his hands on the seeker.  In the rite of Baptism we hear, Ephphatha!  Be opened! Ears are touched.  Lips are, too.  The words come from the one baptizing and so do the actions.  The newly baptized is invited to hear the word and to proclaim it in Christ Jesus, our Lord.  The Spirit empowers.  The miracle happens again.

Another consideration.  Do our parishes welcome the physically and mentally disabled?  Can the physically disabled make their way safely to the altar and the ambo and to all of the devotional spaces to which the rest have the parishioners have access?  I remember being chastised by a woman who had to use crutches.  “I’d love to be a lector.  There is nothing wrong with my voice.  But I could never negotiate the stairs to the ambo.”  The proper response would not be to bring a microphone down to her level.  She has a right to access and alterations to the worship space ought to be made in accord with that.

I remember being thrilled to be in the midst of an assembly and to notice the wide diversity of people ministering.  A blind man served as a greeter.  A woman with severe physical disabilities was an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist.  A person with Downs Syndrome served as an usher.  And no one seemed to think that there was anything unusual about any of this.  There was evidence of all of the other diversities that happen among members of the human race – the ages, races, genders, and orientations.  All were welcome there regardless.  And so was I.  It was good to be there.

So, it just might be that those wonders promised by Isaiah do come about not yet on the grand scale that is the worldwide restoration of Eden revisited.  But it happens in parishes where all are welcome to gather, to listen, to pray, to share the bread and the cup and be transformed by the Eucharist they celebrate.  Then recognizing that they are the Body of Christ, the Church, they are sent to go forth and proclaim the Good News to all they meet.

A final memory to be shared.  I remember being in a splendid church in Kenya – splendid in size, not in adornment.  Thousands of people gathered for the celebration.  Near the front was a group of youngsters severely deformed and disabled by polio.  The first thing I noticed was that they were not in the least self-conscious of their deformities.  Nor were they embarrassed when they needed assistance from someone else to make a move or turn a page.  Nor was there any reluctance on the part of their peers to render that assistance.  The splendid moment came when, following Holy Communion, those youngsters worshiped in a liturgical dance.  Arms waved.  Bodies turned.  Hands clapped.  And the music played.  Alleluia was the song.  I heard.  I was moved.  And I believed.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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