In today’s gospel, Jesus does something that troubles me, but it’s probably not what you think.
Here’s the offending passage:
They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.
Not what you thought, was it? Let me explain to you why this is a problematic passage for me.
My first career was in Deaf Education and I received my degree in Educational Interpreting from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, NTID. While there, I got to meet many people who identified as culturally Deaf, and who objected to the identification of deafness as a disability. They looked at developments such as cochlear implants as a way of pathologizing deafness, when many are in fact proud of their history, language, culture, and traditions.
So when I hit this reading, I instantly see it through that lens. And then, when you see it that way, there are other parts that make it problematic:
- The deaf person doesn’t seem to have a say in what happens to him. He is brought by others.
- Who is this “they”? Are they close friends who know what the person wants? Are they the disciples, in which case, why are they bringing him?
- What is the motivation? Is it to bring healing and restoration? Is it to make the community more comfortable? And does this motivation matter, in light of what the deaf man actually wants?
- “They” were astounded – but how did the formerly deaf man feel about it? Though the story says “he spoke plainly,” we never actually hear his words.
Then there’s the problem of suddenly being able to hear. When you grow up being able to hear, the sense of hearing has a powerful ability to filter out background noises. When I grew up in Alameda, I was under the flight path of the Oakland airport, but I never noticed the airplanes until someone was visiting and pointed out how loud they were. Similarly, one of the things that’s difficult for people who get fitted with hearing aids is suddenly they hear everything; they can’t filter out the background noises.
So when someone who has been deaf can suddenly hear, it’s not like sounds automatically make sense.
For me, the story ends on a false positive note, where we never actually hear the man say anything, and instead, this mysterious “they” announce that Jesus “even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak,” rather than say, “he has helped us to be reconciled with our friend and brother.”
On Tuesday, the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies issued a letter calling on Episcopal congregations to participate in "Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday" this Sunday.
On the plus side, this was requested by African American leadership of the AME church. As AME Bishop Reginald T. Jackson writes, "Racism will not end with the passage of legislation alone; it will also require a change of heart and thinking. This is an effort which the faith community must lead, and be the conscience of the nation. We will call upon every church, temple, mosque and faith communion to make their worship service on this Sunday a time to confess and repent for the sin and evil of racism, this includes ignoring, tolerating and accepting racism, and to make a commitment to end racism by the example of our lives and actions." I am more than happy to honor this call.
On the other hand, if we are truly committed to ending racism, this cannot happen on 5 days notice, with a guest preacher, on a holiday weekend.
It seems to me that for many of us, racism has become a background noise we’ve learned to filter out. One of the powerful changes in this past year is that many of us have finally heard the constant background noise of racism as we see videos of police brutality and learn the names of those who have died in police custudy.
As I looked at the liturgical material offered for this Sunday, I was struck by the first line of a “Litany for those who aren’t ready for healing,” from the ELCA:
“Let us not rush to the language of healing, before understanding the fullness of the injury and the depth of the wound.”
Understanding the fullness of the injury and the depth of the wound requires listening: re-training our hearing to hear the things we’ve learned to screen out.
It requires not presuming we know what the injury is: what we may presume to be pathology may instead be celebrated as culture, and what we presume to be health may instead be a coping mechanism.
It requires time and commitment: not just this sermon, this confession, this Sunday, but an ongoing commitment to understanding.
May those who have ears to hear, truly listen.