Rev. Rainey Dankel | 9.5.21


Like St. Paul’s Church, Trinity Church Boston has many beautiful stained-glass windows, the majority of which are clearly visible in the church. But there’s one window there that most people never see. It is in the sacristy, the little room off the side vestibule, originally used for the vesting of the clergy and as the place where items for worship are stored and prepared by the Altar Guild.

The primary subject of this window is the story from Mark that we heard today, the healing of the deaf man. Jesus is reaching towards him, gently placing his finger on the lips of the man whose downcast face and hands clasped in prayer show his receptiveness to Jesus’ healing touch. To make sure that we know which story is being depicted, the inscription below the figures displays the Greek letters “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened!”—Jesus’ words of healing.

The rector at the time of the construction of the church was the great preacher Phillips Brooks. His choice of this window for the room where the clergy prepare for worship was surely intentional. All preachers pray that God will open their ears and loose their tongues, so that they may, as the deaf man, be able to “speak plainly.” Perhaps that is your prayer too!

But what strikes me today is the juxtaposition of the two stories we have heard: the healing of the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman, followed by the healing of a deaf man. Two occasions of healing, but the first has troubling aspects.

We read that Jesus has gone north, out of the region of Galilee, into an area controlled by Gentiles, that is, non-Jews. A Syrophoenician woman approaches Jesus, shows him deference, and begs him to heal her daughter who is possessed by a demon. Shockingly, Jesus rebuffs her, saying that it is not fair to give the children’s food to the dogs. Jesus is refusing to help this woman and using a crude racial slur. But instead of slinking away, hurt or confused, the woman stands her ground and offers a clever retort. Jesus is impressed. He sees her faith and her courage, and he offers the healing that she is seeking for her daughter.

This story is also contained in the Gospel of Matthew, where there is more “explanation” about Jesus’ mission being only to the Jews. But Mark doesn’t try to explain Jesus’ apparent lack of sympathy. He simply reports what Jesus says, responding to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” And we learn that the mother goes home to find her daughter healed.

This story certainly depicts Jesus in a way we are not used to. One could say that he is guilty of racism, as he insults this woman of another culture. The fact that both Mark and Matthew are willing to preserve this story suggests that it is instructive for us, despite the unease it creates in us. Rarely is Jesus depicted as saying or acting in a way that seems wrong. To his credit, he realizes his harshness and takes corrective action. He offers the healing she desires, a sign of his power from God, but we have also glimpsed him at his most human. Perhaps he is tired, frustrated that he can’t find some rest from all the constant demands placed on him, or wrestling with his sense of call—how far is he to go with God’s new kingdom?

Having this story followed immediately by the healing of the deaf man reveals the careful narrative work of the writer of Mark’s gospel. Whereas Matthew moves into more generalized stories of healing, Mark gives us this very intimate picture of Jesus’ encounter with a man who is deaf and mute. His friends intercede for him, and Jesus takes him aside. In contrast to his attempt to brush off the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus immediately responds and invites this man into a close relationship.

Jesus’ looking to God for help and the physicality of the healing make this a vivid picture of Jesus at work. Jesus acknowledges God as the source of his power, he “opens himself” to that power, and he allows himself to be a conduit to this one who is standing before him. He hears the plea for healing and he trusts God to work through him. We see it all happening before us.

The two stories together give us a dynamic picture of God’s desire to heal the world. Jesus shows us that we must be able to hear from unexpected sources. He initially rebuffs the Syrophoenician woman because he is not expecting to be in relationship with her. There are cultural norms forbidding him to talk with a woman. And she is not of his people, she is not Jewish; she is a Gentile. He has to learn from this person—this woman—this “other”—that God’s Kingdom is not exclusive, that God’s desire for healing extends beyond usual boundaries of nationality, culture, and religion. The new day depicted in our reading from the prophet Isaiah makes clear that healing is one of the signs of the new world that God will bring about. It is a time when “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” And the result is that we will all be able to “shout for joy.”

“Ephphatha!” “Be opened!” That is Jesus’ prayer for himself, and it is his prayer for us. That we will learn, as he does, the difficulty of hearing those voices we are not accustomed to hearing. The unexpected ways that need and hurt and dysfunction are speaking to us. The ones whom we would rather not acknowledge. The man begging for spare change on Grace Street. The angry relative yelling at the holiday dinner table. The young person acting out in school. The immigrant struggling to make himself understood in a hospital emergency room. The Black man who has to tell his son harsh truths about the way the world will treat him. The refugee child lying mute and face down on the shore. Messages we would rather not hear.

Two recent deaths in this community have taken some insistent voices away from our midst. As we remember Linda Armstrong and Fletcher Lowe, we give thanks for their persistence in lifting up voices for justice. Linda organized our pilgrimage to Montgomery Alabama, so we could see and hear for ourselves the excruciating stories of suffering during slavery, lynching, segregation, civil rights struggles, and police brutality. One exhibit I remember had videos prepared by individuals whose family members had been lynched. One elderly man described his sense of despair when he learned that his grandfather had been lynched, a story that his grandmother had never told him. He was sobbing, “She was trying to shield me from the shame and pain. I understand that, but now it’s too late for me to comfort her.”

All of you who knew Fletcher will remember ways in which he was a persistent voice, some would even say a real gadfly! I encourage you to read the obituary and tribute to him if you don’t know of his many ministries on behalf of social and racial justice. Among the papers he prepared with his final wishes is a document entitled “A Declaration of Life”. In it Fletcher expressed his opposition to the death penalty and his conviction that all life is sacred, stating that should he die violently, he wanted any perpetrator not to be executed. Even in death, his voice was to be heard.

“Ephphatha!” “Be opened!” What is your prayer today? How are we deaf to the voices we would rather not hear? How can we receive God’s healing, so that our ears will hear those voices, and our mouths be opened to speak against the forces of brokenness and for the ways of justice and peace? There are lots of ways that this is happening at St. Paul’s and in the Richmond community. It is difficult work, because it is challenging to hear our cultural, political, and economic systems assessed by those who have been failed by those systems. It is uncomfortable to hear how far short we have come in what we thought was progress toward a more equitable, just, and compassionate society. Facing the issues and working for real change can be exhausting. But it may also open us to God’s inexhaustible springs of love, like wells of freshwater, as the prophet Isaiah promises.

Right now the news accounts are filled with voices of refugees from Afghanistan, as well as those who have lost everything in the Haitian earthquake, hurricane Ida, and the West Coast wildfires. A poignant interview I heard yesterday was with a resident of one of the tiny towns along the Louisiana coast, complaining that all the attention and support were going to New Orleans while she and her neighbors feel alone and abandoned.

Which voices are speaking to you? Learn from today’s bulletin how you can join with the Islamic Center in welcoming some refugees here in Virginia. Join Episcopal Relief and Development to help in rescue and rebuilding efforts in Haiti and our own country. Join volunteers here to offer lunches on Thursday. Keep current with the activities sponsored by our Community Engagement Committee.

The prophet Isaiah delivers God’s words to us, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come and save you.” May our ears and lips and hearts be opened to these words. May God heal our deafness and release us to receive and proclaim the love of Christ. Amen.