September 4, 2022

Mark 7:31-37 “Back to School Blues” — Rev. Chelsea Page

So, it’s back to school time! Anyone here totally love school? Who here is groaning, like ugh, school is the worst, why can’t summer last forever?

I always loved this time of year for one reason: shopping for back to school supplies! Seriously, I’ve already been dreaming about the cute backpack my daughter will need when she starts preschool next year. I’m fully aware that she may not naturally love school as much as I did, and that’s valid. But who doesn’t love an awesome pencil case?

So by now, most of our families have been back to school for a few weeks. And even for kids who love the first day of school, the glow may have worn off by now. After all, school is work. And even more significantly, school means community, and community can be hard.

Unless folks are intentional about building a culture of care, which many of our educators do an excellent job of, a community can easily devolve into a collective built around conformity and, even more salient for our kids, popularity. If you don’t believe me, watch pretty much any teen movie or TV show. Many of our kids’ brains seem to be wired for awareness of status, of their standing in the crowd.

What is it with crowds? We’re stuck with them because we’re social animals. We need to belong to groups larger than our family. But still, crowds are impersonal, and can behave in ways that are carelessly cruel.

Jesus has about had it with THIS crowd in our gospel story today.

Unlike many healing stories, which begin with family or friends bringing a loved one to Jesus for help, this story in Mark begins with a “they” – just a featureless crowd of folks from a gentile town.

So what is this collective, this “they” up to? They are bringing Jesus a deaf man, a man who shows no indication in the story that he wants to become a hearing person, or even understands what is going on.

By the way, most capital D-Deaf people today who speak sign language would recoil at the thought of being “cured,” AKA, removed from their culture and identity and mainstreamed into hearing society.

But the crowd has selected this deaf man, as their lowest-ranking member, to turn into a human fixer-upper project. Was this a diversion for their own entertainment, or maybe a quest to fulfill their collective sense of purpose? Perhaps they have heard about this foreign healer Jesus and are setting out to test him, the way kids will sniff out the new kid on the block to determine how popular they should be. We don’t really know.

But we do know that this crowd does not relate to their deaf member or to Jesus as individuals rather than roles in their group system. Because when Jesus explicitly asks them to please not gossip about this man, they refuse to stop. Neither Jesus’s nor the man’s privacy and wellbeing is actually their concern.

Friends, a crowd can never love you in a way that is meaningful. I wish I had heard this as a kid. Popularity in a group is always conditional. It is not the same as love from individuals. Only individual love can create lasting relationships.

Jesus was exceptional in his ability to love people as individuals. Over and over in the stories of the gospel, he calls people to step out of the crowd and befriends them one-on-one.

Even the Deaf community, while still not loving that this story depicts being “cured” of deafness, has pointed to this story as proof that Jesus loves and cares for Deaf individuals, and does not shy away from them because of their culture.

This is a pretty amazing reclamation, considering that our healing story today has been used by Christian churches for the last two hundred years as an excuse to suppress the teaching and practice of sign language, in favor of forcing Deaf children to learn how to speak and lip read, often abusively. A popular teacher in this Christian “oralism ministry” movement said, “We are all children of the one Christ who gave us the example, that the minister of Christ must open the mouth of the deaf.” No wonder only two percent of Deaf people today are Christians.

Friends, a crowd can never really love you, but people can. Your family, your friends, people at your church, and certainly Jesus. The unique gift of love that they have to offer you, the kind of love that is so different from the crowd’s, is the ability to be open to who you are. No one is perfect at loving, but most of the people who love you for you will eventually come around to accepting you just exactly as you are. A crowd can never do this, since a crowd always needs you to stay in your role. The love of the people who are close to you changes and flows as you change, it falls short and it disappoints, but these are just signs that it is real.

Love means being open to each other’s reality.

This is the meaning of the great Aramaic word Ephphatha. It’s such a good word, can you repeat it after me, Ephphatha? Ephphatha!

It means “be opened.” Although Jesus was saying this to the man’s ears, he was not saying it for the man’s benefit. The man could not hear it. He was saying out loud it for the benefit of the crowd, who was intrusively eavesdropping on their interaction. In this way, it is instructions for all of us.

Be open those who are are culturally different. Be open to people as individuals, not just as status-holders who are ranked in a crowd. Be open to share and receive other people’s individual truths. Be open to your own sacred worth and value as an individual and that of others. Be open to forming deeply meaningful personal relationships, and be open to intimacy with those you know and care about. Be open to encountering strangers and making new friends.

So as our children and youth once again brave human society at school, Jesus is giving a perfect back to school blessing if I ever heard one. So let’s stay it together again, three times. Ephphatha! Ephphatha! Ephphatha! Be open. Amen.