The Conversation

9/7/03
Mk. 7:31-37
Pent. 13

The couple was having dinner. Their conversation was quiet but intense. She said, “You don¹t listen to me! Say something. “I don¹t know what to say,” he replied. It could have been a paradigm, or example, of our human condition. Often we miss what our children are saying, what our hearts are saying, what society is saying. We tune out the cries of hunger and grief, the shouts of joy, the chuckles of quiet satisfaction. In the chaos of our lives, with the cacophony of radio, TV, and computer we give up trying to listen. A vacation helps a little to restore our hearing, our ability to listen to the sounds of life, but it is small comfort.

When we are greeted by pressures and traumas, surprises and joys, often we are at a loss for words. “I don¹t know what to say,” sums up how we feel. In the last three days I have been told of an illness, a misfortune and a death. Each time I have thought, “I don¹t know what to say.”

If you have been listening to my homilies this summer, you may have heard a theme. It is “Living The Christian Life.” In this series I talked about the fact that as Christian¹s we are “pre-approved.” We live in a stateof grace and are always moving on. Our lives are journeys of faith. On July 13th I pointed out that our task as Christians is not to “do better, try harder,” but to repent, face the evil spirits and to heal. Two weeks later I talked about God as our refuge and strength, the importance of leaning on Him as we face the issues of life. My last sermon, August 3rd was about “Soul Food.” You and I are nourished by Jesus Christ, who feeds many of our emotional and spiritual hungers. Each of my sermons was based on the gospel for the day. Today I want to speak briefly about how we go about our task of living the Christian life.

St. Mark tells us that a man who was deaf and mute was brought to Jesus to be healed. Jesus spat and touched the man¹s ears and tongue. He was able then to hear and speak! Although Jesus cautioned him to tell no one, the man and his friends broadcasted the good news. This is a miracle story. It is classified in ancient literature as a “wonder story.” Jesus performed a miraculous deed, a wonder. As a result the story tells us something about Jesus. He was wonderful; He was miraculous; He did all things well; new things were being done; a new era had arrived. The scriptures were fulfilled. The messianic expectations of Isaiah and Elijah are fulfilled. In the narrative of Mark¹s Gospel, the character and mission of Jesus are being defined. Jesus is revealed as very special; He is divine.

Something else is also happening in the portrayal of Jesus in Mark¹s Gospel. Although the writing is sparse, and the character of Jesus is clearly defined, it is also true that Jesus¹ actions are almost always metaphoric. His actions imply or connote more than the simple, literal action. The healing of the deaf and mute man is intended to cause us to think about what that healing means. That is one of the reasons why the story is remembered. It is a loaded story and we are meant to ruminate, to ponder, to unpack it. We are meant to be in conversation and dialogue. What does it mean that the man received from Jesus the power to hear and to speak?

Well, what does it mean to be deaf? Last Wednesday morning I had to celebrate the Eucharist at 7 a.m. So I set my alarm for 6:00 a.m. I barely heard it go off. I am slightly deaf in my right ear due to a head injury when I was twelve years old. I cannot hear with my right ear the three highest notes out of the 6,700 notes of our organ. I was reminded by my almost missing the alarm that my father was severely hearing impaired. He had half of his hearing in one ear. Almost all of his adult life he worked in the publishing business having to listen very hard and very closely. Very few were aware of the fact that he had only 25 per cent of normal hearing. He was a very ordinary man, and yet he dealt with a difficult handicap extraordinarily well. One of the by-products of being deaf is a sense of isolation. As the deafness increased, more and more he felt excluded, out of it, living in his own world. That quietness can be comforting or it can be frustrating, but one is more alone than before. Although the man brought to Jesus had friends who helped him, he was experiencing serious isolation. He was not part of normal social conversation.

Now what does it mean not to be able to speak? Occasionally I am tongue-tied, suffer from malapropisms and foot-in-mouth disease. I have also struggled with seven different languages. But none of those experiences compares to that of a person who has had a stroke and cannot speak. There is often a sense of horror in his or her eyes. The reaction is different from one who cannot hear. To be unable to speak is to be unable to be an active part of the dialogue of life. If it is true that we make sense of our lives through telling stories, then not to be able to tell our story, not to be able to verbally express our thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams, is to be cut out of the dialogue of life. We grow and learn through our ability to be in conversation with others. So much about life is a matter of nuance, implication, inference and phrasing. How do you find “your voice” when you have none?

Perhaps for the Jew of Jesus¹ time this was an even more acute problem than we realize. For the Jew was expected to be in dialogue with the Torah. In the temple there was to be praise and thanksgiving. In the synagogue there was to be questioning and defining, asking and dialogue. To be a Jew is to argue with God. Look at Job, or the prophets, or even the psalms. God is challenged, beseeched, reminded, and coerced. When God plans to destroy Sodom, Abraham negotiates God down to the faithfulness of ten men, thereby sparing the city. (Genesis 18:22-33) Words are important for the Jew.

When Jesus healed the man who was deaf and mute, He brought the man out of isolation and silence into the dialogue and conversation of life. The touch of Jesus is re-creative. It brings new hearing and new speech. There is new life and a new conversation. The man cannot help but tell others the good news.

How are we to go about our tasks of Christian living? As you and I seek to live the Christian life, as we pursue our faith journey, it is important that we not be isolated but in conversation: with ourselves, with others, with our past and with society. It is important that we listen and that we be in dialogue. But Christian conversation is more than trendy psychobabble. Christian listening means allowing Christ to touch our hearing. It is to listen to and remember His words as found in Scripture. It is to listen to what He says through the liturgy and through other faithful Christians. Christian speaking means to allow Christ to shape our language, our diction and our voice. (As St. Paul said, “If I speak in the tongue of men and of angels but have not love, I am but a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal.” (I Corinthians 13:1)

There will be times in our conversation when someone will say, “You don¹t listen to me!” Someone will reply, “I don¹t know what to say.” That is part of life, part of the human condition. How we handle it is what counts. That we not allow failure to listen and failure to speak to be cause for despair or conflict is what is important, and that is where we ask for grace and for God to touch us. Hopefully we have been living in conversation with God and in the life of the Church. God helped Moses hear his people and to find words to speak. God gave St. Peter and the apostles the ability to listen to the questions of the early church and the world. He gave them words to speak. With Jesus there was a new beginning, a new covenant, a new testament. Because of His love it is possible to continue anew in conversation and dialogue. When the woman said, “You don¹t listen,” and he said, “I don¹t know what to say,” she responded, “Well, how can we possibly go on then?” He put down his fork, looked at her and said, “I love you. Is that enough? It may not cover everything, but it is the most important, and that makes it more than enough.” (Although not 100 per cent, this is close enough to what he said. After all, I can only hear 6,697 of the organ¹s notes.) I went back to reading the paper and finished my meal. “It is not nice to eavesdrop,” I thought. “But that was not a bad answer.” -Amen