15th Sunday after Pentecost
Pentecost 15.21 “Would You Rather…?” Mark 7:31-37
I know a family that would play a car game on long journeys called “Would You Rather?”. The game presents players with two absurd options that never occur in real life, and players have to choose one option and then explain the reasons for their choice…
This question was posed to the mother of the family, somewhere in the wilds of Indiana: “Would you rather have ears like broccoli stalks, but that work perfectly well and never give you any trouble, or would you rather have the song “It’s A Grand Old Flag” always stuck in your head, making you, sometimes, burst out uncontrollably and sing a verse or two in public?”
And the mother went, “Oh, wow. Actually, I live the 2nd option, every day.” And she burst out, “You’re a grand old flag/ you’re a high-flying flag/… Ev’ry heart beats true/ under red, white and blue/ where there’s never a boast or brag/ but should old acquaintance be forgot/ keep your eye on the grand old flag.” An astonished hush fell over the car, then uproarious laughter. The mom, deadly serious, goes: “Gosh. That’s a tough one. I guess I’ll take the devil I know…”
Our Gospel today put me in mind of the game, which I have actually played a couple times. When I first read the text with our little lectionary study group I just unconsciously started playing the game myself. I went, hmm… recalling from our Gospel a couple weeks ago the surprising info that Jesus apparently wasn’t exactly fussy about washing his hands: would you rather have Jesus sticking his unwashed fingers in your ears (remembering of course he is God!) or would you rather take your chances with hearing aids, with which they’ve done amazing things, lately?
And, would you rather Jesus spits (big gooey one) on his already unwashed hands and goes, “Stick out your tongue and say “Ahhh” and rubs spit all over your tongue, then goes “OK, now say ‘Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers’…” or: would you rather just take elocution lessons? Would you rather Jesus shout in some weird Syrian dialect: “Ephphatha!” and wave his hands about like a magician to heal you (remember: a crowd’s nearby that will ask: “do you know this guy?”) or would you rather just ask your doc for a prescription for antibiotics to treat the ear trouble?
Would you rather Jesus leave you free to give your personal testimonial about the whole weird miracle (assuming you took that path) and see your TED talk (perfectly annunciated) go viral; or would you rather have Jesus whip out an NDA and make you sign it? And then feel guilty as you inevitably violate the “tell no one” injunction, but blab to all your friends and colleagues?
And think about this one, (which, to me, was actually the first one that came to my mind reading over the text): would you rather Jesus healed one stranger miraculously and perfectly, and then wonder why he does’t heal you that way; or would you rather Jesus refrained from any bizarre miracles of any kind?
This last one really made me think. There were lots of deaf and mute people then. Lots of lame and paralyzed and blind and lepers. And Jesus healed a goodly number of them, but still; a tiny percentage of the sick, even then. And while Jesus’ Apostles were given power to do similar miracles, they didn’t seem to use the power very widely on very many. And it wasn’t a power that got passed on to the clergy of the New Testament.
I pray for friends/family who have serious illnesses that make life very difficult for them. I watch helplessly as they struggle, bravely, as normal things like eating become fraught with difficulty and dangers and their health becomes a daily marathon race to run. I recall how Elijah’s prayers were all answered and wonder what’s wrong with my prayers? Aside from one weather prayer decades ago, the prayers I care about most largely go unanswered, and the miracles for which I daily pray don’t happen.
This is probably not a great path to go down in a homily. I should probably preach a conventional sermon about how powerful Jesus is and how his word and touch, his “Ephphatha!’ can open our ears and heal us all; how faith receives this word and rejoices in it and benefits from it now and eternally. I really, really should’ve written that sermon, but it just wouldn’t come out. My fingers moved across the keyboard in a quite involuntary way last Friday morning, like that poor woman who is ever, embarrassingly, busting out verses of “It’s A Grand Old Flag”. [I personally would have taken the broccoli ears, every time!]
Honestly, sometimes I think I would rather Jesus heal no one miraculously of debilitating ailments, than just heal a handful of poor folks who lived 2,000 years ago—which makes the rest of us realize that (in addition to bearing our burdens and infirmities daily!) that, if Jesus loved us like he loved that deaf and mute stranger 2,000 years ago, it’d all go away in an instant! Which doesn’t make my burdens lighter, if you know what I mean?
It’s a rule of parenting—a good one, I think—that you shouldn’t do for one child what you can’t do for them all. Because the exclusive gift will breed resentment. Remember Jospeh and his coat of many colors and how that went over with the less favored brothers? Uh-huh. I’m relating to Judah and Reuben pretty well right now.
I wouldn’t mind Jesus sticking his unwashed hands in my ears, or spitting on my tongue if that’s what it takes to open my ears, fix my smart mouth! I’m OK with it. As Luther famously said, “I would eat mud if he commanded me,” and I’m a big fan of the five second rule about food on the floor as my family will vouch for (with disgust 🙂 Hey, you’ve seen me pop communion hosts dropped on the floor in my mouth; ‘cause, body of Christ—it can’t hurt!
But what do we do with the sight of some poor old dude 2,000 years ago miraculously (and somewhat theatrically) healed by Jesus? How does that make our similar burdens lighter, exactly, now?
Well, I know a young man with a chronic illness. I pray regularly for miraculous healing for him. He told me it isn’t really that big a deal. Oh, for sure, he wishes it would go away. But, he figures it has forced him to manage his time and life better; and overall, felt like he’d become a stronger person for it. And I was kind of floored by his courage and cool. Life gave him lemons; he made lemonade.
Maybe we don’t know what we should pray for? Maybe we don’t know what’s really good for us? Maybe there were (and are?) only a handful of people who can handle the truth, appreciate the miracles of Jesus?
Of all the people Jesus made well, it seems only the man born blind in John 9 actually came out of it better; he wasn’t upset about 40 years blind. Nah; he figures blindness was the way he came to Jesus, learned his power and love, and without the 40 years blind, he’d never, really, have seen or loved Jesus, ritely. That guy (also kinda smart mouthed 🙂 ended up probably Jesus’ biggest fan.
Maybe this is why Jesus charges us to tell no one about the miracles he does every day for us? So we’ll simply rejoice ourselves, privately—and see in our crosses not burdens, only opportunities to know better Jesus and his love?
Maybe the real opening and loosing is the gift of faith that rejoices in infirmities and finds in the weakness of the cross the strength that moves mountains, and gives Peace, surpassing understanding, guarding heart and mind in Jesus and his love Amen.