“We Are THEY”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.
36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”(NRSV)
One of the terrible but all-too-familiar stories associated with the pandemic—especially during the early days—is of Covid patients suffering in isolation. Many people stricken with the infection, lying unconscious on ventilators, died while family and friends had only phones and face-time apps to communicate with them. I can’t imagine the heartbreak of having to hold a phone rather than the hand of a loved one when the physical presence of those you know, trust, and love is itself the presence of God.
Those stories reminded me of something I witnessed in Malawi. When a Malawian adult or child falls ill, family and friends become the EMTs, ambulance service, food service, social workers, and HMO. Even when hospitalized, patients had to have their community around them to do everything except deliver medical treatment. While a patient lay in a crowded ward, her family and friends lived on the grounds of the hospital, cooking under the tin roof of a dirt-floored lean-to, washing clothes and sheets in a common wash pot, and sleeping under the trees. Only the most destitute in that destitute country received the meager hospital rations.
Without support, few Malawians survive for long. In a place of such acute poverty, every individual needs an attentive community, a responsive They.
As Jesus returns to Galilee from the north, a proactive They brings to him a deaf man. Later, in Bethsaida, another They brings to Jesus a blind man. I imagine each They feeling as desperately hopeful as a Malawian family. And the Theys who bring the deaf and blind men to Jesus do not come to test him. They’re driven by a desire for healing. They want wholeness restored to the particular individuals. I also think they also desire wholeness for the community. As long as one of them is deaf or blind, there is a deafness or a blindness to the entire They.
Shared suffering tends to be a difficult concept for people in individualistic cultures to comprehend, much less to embrace. Folks like us have been taught to attach much if not most of our identity to individual achievement, accumulating personal wealth, and avoiding suffering. I have to think, however, that the cultures represented and encouraged in biblical literature have much more in common with places like Malawi than the contemporary western world. Where resources, time, and suffering are shared more freely and generously, the culture itself, even if physically impoverished, experiences a strength and richness that individualistic cultures cannot understand. Indeed, even now, a kind of militant individualism is proving itself intolerant of those who seek to act for the good of the wider community. And isn’t the whole point of the Incarnation to declare that God is with us in our suffering as well as our joy?
Having said that, we all belong to peer groups. We identify with parties and agendas. We brand ourselves with the logos of schools, sports teams, corporations, denominations, and so forth. And yet, to many “first world” dwellers, the idea of being defined by the joys and sorrows, the strengths and weaknesses of some encompassing They seems as confining and anachronistic as a rotary phone. More dangerously, such associations are often despised as threats to individual freedom. It seems to me that, in general, western cultures, obsessed with I, tend to fear, judge, and condemn any true sense of We.
The Church, as an intentional community, is a clear and definite We. As a re-presentation of Christ to the world, we are the They which brings the deafness, blindness, and brokenness of the world to Jesus. We are the They who gives the voiceless a voice. Individualistic religion scorns all of that brokenness. It will say, in disgust, If you had enough faith, or if you were righteous enough, you wouldn’t be in that mess. At its most devilishly heartless, individualistic religion dismisses the world’s brokenness by saying, “Oh, don’t worry. God never gives you more than you can handle.” Like many of you, I’ve heard that phrase in hospital rooms, funeral homes, and from pulpits. Brothers and Sisters, please think carefully before you stab someone with that platitude. Maybe, sometimes, there are “good intentions” behind those words, but the person to whom it is said usually just hears, That’s your problem. Handle it yourself.
It is by grace that God calls us to recognize when one of us has become burdened with more than he or she can handle. God calls us to regard their suffering as our own. If we are part of the great They of faith, our vocation includes bringing individual and collective deafness and blindness to the Christ, and joining our voices in both pleading for help and offering healing.
Over the years, I’ve heard many people say that they come to worship to recharge their batteries. And I understand that—to a degree. However, if we’re part of God’s created and creative They, then worship does more than recharge our batteries for our sake. Worship is about equipping the saints for tending to our hurting and over-burdened neighbors and environment. The point of worship—the point of praise, confession, prayer, and meditation—is to draw close to God so that we see God in all people, places, and times. Worship draws us closer together in holy community, closer to God for each other’s sake, and closer to each other forGod’s sake. In this renewing communion, our witness to God in Christ can become a magnificent harmony of distinct voices. And in that, our individuality is recognized, celebrated, and offered to God.
Many of us grew up hearing preachers build a verbal fence around the Lord’s Table. The words were exclusive and individualistic: This table is set for “believers” only. Generations ago, many pastors even examined their parishioners before a communion Sunday, and only those who survived his scrutiny were allowed at the table. More and more of us are using our words to build a bridge rather than a fence. There are just too many reasons for a congregation to serve as a holy Theywhich welcomes everyone to the table.
So, you may come in gratitude to praise God.
You may come in penitence to experience forgiveness.
You may come to reclaim your unique gifts and recommit your individuality to loving God, neighbor, and earth.
You may come to feel the embrace of a community of faith.
You may come to identify yourself with that community, with the body of Christ.
You may come to receive a reminder of God’s faithfulness to you in some season of sorrow, illness, loneliness, or grief.
You may come to make peace with God after some painful experience when it seemed that you were, indeed, given more than you could handle.
You may come out of an unbreakable habit.
You may even come out of simple curiosity.
Whatever your reasons, come. Come and find your place in God’s gracious They in and for the world.