September 5, 2021
15th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen.
They say a parent is never happier than their least happy child. If you’ve ever sat with a parent whose child has been diagnosed with cancer, or who was bullied for the seventh time, or who has lost their best friend, you know the pain.
Parents will do anything to help. We open ourselves wide, desperately looking for solutions, making a favorite recipe, crying, wringing our hands, offering hugs; we’ll try anything. It never feels like enough.
I’ve been thinking about God’s experience of this lately. If a parent is never happier than their least happy child, then God, one Mother of us all, must face perpetual sadness. I know we shouldn’t project human emotions onto our Divine Parent. We can’t know that God experiences pain or loss in the same way we do; fears and worries about the future must be very different for God who lives beyond space or time.
But scripture describes a God whose heart grieves for us. Did you catch the little comment Mark mentions in this healing story[i]? Jesus sighs as he encounters the man who is hearing and speech impaired. Is he brokenhearted by the sorrow and pain around him? I can only imagine a God who hurts when we do.
I think of God grieving with families scrambling to escape harm in Afghanistan, pounding on the sides of a plane to open up and bring them to freedom, risking life itself to carry their children to a better way. I see God weeping as the families receive the remains of their sons and daughters killed in the line of duty, or watching among those desperately waiting for word of whether their loved one survived a hurricane, their home is still standing in the ashes of a wildfire, or the treatment will be able to help their child survive. I imagine God standing by the bus stop, trying to breathe while a nervous first grader climbs up the steps of a vehicle they haven’t seen before, wearing a mask and trying to be brave after having spent the last 18 months together at home. I picture God sending upbeat texts and reassurances to the child off at college, the one who thinks they may have chosen the wrong school, they were just exposed to the virus, and they seem to have missed their first class. Surely he has known our griefs and carried our sorrows.
But I wonder, could God get irritated by one child’s complaints, when another is hurting more deeply? As human parents, we know this happens. One child is grieving some little inconvenience, a lost clothing item, a rough schedule, but our heart aches for another who is in serious danger, facing a terrible diagnosis, experiencing some horrific heartbreak.
While we suffer deeply for our own children’s losses or troubles, we admit that it’s hard to imagine another parent’s grief. I’m not proud of it, but I lose more sleep worrying about my own family’s illnesses or struggles, than about the thousands of families facing war or starvation in some distant country. It’s hard to even consider pain with which I have little experience.
Mark’s gospel introduces us to a frantic parent who doesn’t know how to help her little child. And to make it worse, Jesus doesn’t seem to care.
Jesus had gone out into a foreign area. I wonder if he had been trying to get some time off, and so traveled a bit outside his normal stopping grounds. Maybe he hoped to avoid the crowds for a while, and headed out where he’d be less recognized, just to get a bit of rest. Maybe his heart was heavy, worried with the rejection he knows his disciples will face, sick about the oppression his people lived with, apprehensive over his own, precarious future.
We read that Jesus didn’t want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice. First it’s the distressed mother who falls at his feet.
Jesus wants to dismiss her. “I’ve got my own kids to take care of,” he implies. The work he feels he was called to do, caring for his people, freeing his own nation from the power of empire, is overwhelming enough. He goes so far as to insult the woman, suggesting that she and her child were no more important than stray dogs.
But the mother is desperate enough to only see her child’s need, and she will stop at nothing. She doesn’t care about Jesus’ opinion of her kind. She doesn’t bother to be offended or insulted. She can’t rest while her daughter suffers.
So she reminds Jesus of the care the little one deserves. “Give me just a crumb of your attention, then,” she demands. “Throw the scraps of your mercy off the table and my child will lick them off the floor.” Like any frantic mother begging for help, she implores Jesus to be open to her cries.
Does the woman understand the extent of God’s compassion even better than Jesus does in that moment? Is she more aware of the wide open hand of the God of Jesus, who cares for the stranger throughout all generations[ii]?
Somehow, Jesus is moved by her determination, and offers her child the healing she demands. He cleanses the demon from the little girl, and allows her to experience life in its fullness.
Jesus then is presented with a person whose speech and hearing are impaired. It is this one who makes Jesus sigh in prayer, as if he’s tired of the task, weary of the ongoing need to free, to rescue, to heal. “Ephphatha,” Jesus commands, “Be opened.”
What a beautiful, direct prayer: Be opened. The man’s ears and mouth are ordered open, so he can hear and speak. But the command sounds broader in the text, directed not only at the man’s impairment, but at his heart, his mind; his entire being is called to be open to wholeness.
And maybe not just this man in need of healing, but his whole community needs to be made open to God’s reign, God’s life, the full goodness of the Way of God. Maybe the whole world needs to be made open to the good news Jesus came to bring.
Maybe Jesus sighs as he himself realizes it. The woman opens him to remember that healing is never meant for just one family or one group; Jesus has been sent into the world to declare God’s reign to all people. Maybe he discovers his own need to be open to the expansive, amazing, universal love of God for all creatures, all children, no matter whom, all places, all creation, no matter what.
Centuries before Jesus lived, the prophet Isaiah already cried out for us to be open. Isaiah didn’t only envision a day when those who were blind would be able to see, or those who were lame would be able to walk, but a day when the earth itself would be open to God’s healing. The desert would bloom, and the thirsty ground would become pools of water[iii].
At the end of this long hot summer, after enduring drought, and wildfires and air advisories, after watching the Pacific states burn while New England floods, and the Gulf Coast suffers through hurricane after hurricane, we join Isaiah’s cry for rescue. We pray for our hearts to open to the changes we need to make to care for the planet. We plead for our society to open to ways that work for restoration, conservation, and renewal.
The writer of James cries for Jesus’ followers to continue to be open to God’s ways. Be open to caring for those who are poor, he pleads. Be open to letting your faith move you to love your neighbor, to serve the world, to care for the needs of the least among you[iv].
Isn’t this what God’s people are meant to experience? Doesn’t faith offer the way into the life of Jesus? Isn’t God leading into openness the freedom to care for the earth, into openness to care for each other?
Ephphatha, we hear Jesus sighing still today. We turn to celebrate Labor Day again, with less enthusiasm than we are accustomed. We expected the pandemic to be behind us by now, but instead we face rising infection rates just when we hoped to return to a more typical fall.
We awkwardly admit that a day to honor those who labor is beyond due. Those who have labored for healing in our hospitals and clinics, who have offered vaccines and explained reasons for restrictions, those who have met too many grieving families, have been mocked, ignored, and belittled for their work. Those who have labored to care for and teach our children have been asked to do so much more than is reasonable, and are once again called to work under conditions that seem less than safe or productive. Those who have labored in service industries have been underpaid and given little time off or benefits for their health or future. Those who have labored to find employment have been pushed into positions that don’t even pay a livable wage.
Be opened, God is saying to us. Be open to the needs of your neighbor, the needs of the earth, the needs of the laborer. Strive like a desperate mother begging for healing. See each of my children as if they were your own, and work to allow them to experience life fully.
And then, Jesus looks toward each of us, and gently reminds us to be open to that love, too. Ephphatha, Jesus sighs. Be open to knowing yourself as the most beloved, cherished, and empowered Child of God.
Somehow, God in infinite love, loves every single part of this creation with a singular, amazing, healing, expansive love. Be open to trust God’s embracing love of you, making you whole, freeing you to know life in its fullness. God feeds you not just with crumbs from the table, but with your favorite recipe from home, the feast of Christ’s own presence, to make you whole, to bring you to life, to lead you into freedom. You, who have been deaf to the loving voice of God, have been opened to the sounds of good news, and have been freed with all creation, to sing for joy.
Be opened. Ephphatha. Thanks be to God. Amen
[i] Mark 7:24-37
[ii] Psalm 146
[iii] Isaiah 35:4-7a
[iv] James 2:1-10, 14-17