Listen. What do you hear? The breathing of the person next to you. The traffic outside. A voice. The shuffling of paper. The beating of your own heart. There is no background music, no mechanical buzz. This is a quiet place, a sacred space, a refuge from the chaos and noise of the world. In this place we can truly listen, listen to the whisper of the Spirit. Listen to our own pain. Listen to the loving, liberating, life-giving voice of God.
To listen is to trust. To listen for God’s voice within us is to trust that what we hear will be a voice of love and healing. We all long to be able to trust like that, because these days it feels like nobody and nothing is to be trusted. And when we come here, it is with the hope that what we hear is trustworthy. “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy.”
In our Gospel story today we find Jesus on the road. He has just been debating with the authorities about what is clean or unclean, making the point that outward practices of ritual purity are worthless if people continue to live lives of corruption, greed, and violence. The message Jesus brings is one of opening our hearts to the fullness of God’s love, of allowing grace to outweigh law, of seeking purity of heart. Now, in the verses we just heard, Jesus is outside his comfort zone. As a Jewish rabbi, walking through Gentile neighborhoods – you could almost place this story in modern Israel and imagine the orthodox rabbi daring to enter a Palestinian enclave. This woman confronts him, breaking any number of purity laws – An unaccompanied woman accosting a Jewish stranger in public – and she begs him to listen to her story. Her child is desperately sick.
Up to this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has been focused on his mission to reform the Jewish people. But now he is in unfamiliar territory. It’s probably not an accident that immediately after he has lectured the Pharisees on spiritual rigidity, he is forced to interact with someone who lives entirely outside that purity culture. Here is an opportunity to demonstrate just how far God’s love and power extends, but Jesus apparently doesn’t get that right away. It takes him a minute, and some careful listening, before he almost visibly shifts and, to our relief, broadens his own horizon to embrace this woman and her daughter. The humanity of Jesus is on full display here, and I can relate, thinking of my own journey as God continues to open my ears and heart to those who are different or scary.
And what comes next, immediately after Jesus’s ears have been opened to a new dimension of ministry? An encounter with a man whose ears are stopped up.
Now, think about this for a minute. This was an oral culture. No books or newspapers or written signs to speak of, and a low level of literacy. Stories, news, teachings, all were conveyed orally. To be deaf in that time was to be cut off from communications and from community. Today we honor the deaf culture and the importance of the various sign languages. I love it when our altar servers who are fluent express their faith with sign language up here in the chancel. It’s a beautiful thing to see. One of my dreams is to have an inset on the screen of our live stream with someone interpreting the service in ASL. But in Jesus’ time, deafness carried a stigma, a suggestion that someone was being punished by God. When Jesus opened this man’s ears he not only bestowed physical healing, but he restored the man’s social and spiritual health as well. He gave him back his life.
The outsider is cared for. Distress and disease are banished. The teacher grows through listening. Ears are opened. Life and community are restored without judgment, without conditions, and the love of God is shared. This is what the Reign of God looks like, in Scripture and in our own world, already accessible to us, if not yet universally embraced.
And this is what we strive for here at St Paul’s. It starts with listening. When we share our stories with each other, listening carefully, allowing Jesus to open our ears, we find new abundance of life.
Earlier this summer a small group of trusted parishioners had focused conversations with some of their friends in the cathedral. They learned of a number of concerns and griefs which were affecting the quality of our corporate life. They brought those concerns to me and Jeff, and we listened carefully, just as they had listened carefully to others. One of my weekly letters this month will say more, but for now, I just want to acknowledge how important those listening exercises were. When we listen closely to one another, when we feel truly heard, trust has a chance to grow. If we can build a community where we trust each other to tell the truth in love, we will have something rare and precious in this world. I think we can do it.
So let’s practice. Take a moment now to tell your neighbor or someone sitting near you about one true thing – a joy, a learning, a healing – that happened over the summer. One minute each and then swap….
Now that we have reconnected, let’s continue our Homecoming celebration by lifting up the ministries we share. As you may know, we have some 80 different ministries here, engaging hundreds of people. Thank you, each of you, for your leadership, your passion, and your commitment to sharing God’s love in your own unique way.
[Recommissioning of lay ministers follows].
The Very Rev. Penny Bridges