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September 5, 2021, Ordinary Time
Isaiah 35:4-7; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37
One way to describe how I feel when God is with me is that I feel free. I feel open.
Ephphatha, Jesus says today, “be opened,” and sometimes we are.
It’s the way we feel when we’re doing something we love and we’re caught up in it and we’re not thinking about anything else. It’s the way we feel when we’re in a place we love and we can just be ourselves. It’s the way we feel when we’re with people we love, as if Jesus has touched our ears and touched our tongues and we can really say how we feel without fear of being judged or rejected, and we can really listen, too.
In the opening prayer for mass today we ask that through Christ we may receive the gift of “true freedom.” True freedom. That’s how we know: when we feel free, when we feel this sense of release, of being unbound, we know that Christ is present.
It’s as if the springs have burst forth in the desert. As if the drought is over and the rain has come.
A few summers ago I was using a listening exercise with a group of deacons and their wives. It goes like this. People pair off and one person gets to talk on a certain topic for several minutes while the other person listens. When the timer goes off, they switch, and the talker becomes the listener and the listener the talker. When you’re the listener you can only listen. You can’t say a thing. When you’re the talker you get to say whatever you want to say—and if you run out of things to say, you both just have to sit there, in silence.
It’s a remarkably freeing exercise. One deacon wife said that this was the longest her husband had ever listened to her in 45 years of marriage—and she was only half kidding.
Someone is always interrupting us, someone is always trying to fix us, someone is always trying to silence us, and I think that’s why we’re so sealed off to begin with. If we post something online we’ll be blasted; if we say what we think, we’ll be shunned; if we talk about our fears we’ll be thought of as weak.
Or we won’t be listened to at all. How many voices in the world go unheard? How many cries for help go unheeded?
This is how we writing teachers have ruined writing for generations of students. We’ve made them so afraid of making mistakes they can’t really say what they mean. No, William Stafford says: “Permit yourself to like what you are doing (if you feel any qualms, then veer towards what feels good—why oppose the only compass you have?)” Sure, you’ll have to revise, but save that for later. Just get going. “When in doubt, lower your standards,” Stafford says, and I think that applies to the spiritual life, too.
We think we have to be pious when we pray and that being pious means being on our best behavior, putting our best foot forward. But we can tell Jesus anything. We can wear our shabby clothes. We can confess our poverty, our smallness. We can tell Jesus how bored we are. We can tell Jesus how sad we are, or angry, or discouraged. We can tell Jesus about our leaky sink and our sick cat and our cranky boss—Jesus loves us, he’s woven himself into every part of our lives, nothing is too small or trivial for him.
Jesus “groans,” when he exorcises the man. I never noticed that before. It’s remarkable.
We can groan, too.
Jesus loves us even when we sin and especially then and in fact this is the mystery of sin, that when we confess it there is always rejoicing—if we open up, if we tell the truth. This is what the sacrament of reconciliation is all about. God never rejects us. He shows “no partiality,” as the letter of James says. He loves us before we sin and he loves us afterwards and so we are free, entirely free—not to keep sinning, but to keep being ourselves.
“One of the essential graces of repentance,” Anthony De Mello says, “is joy.”
It is the authentic, homecoming happiness. How lovely it is to surrender oneself with one’s inadequacies into the loving arms of God and be accepted. How much evil I have done and how much I am loved! How wonderful!
We talk to God and he listens. He listens.
There are different kinds of silences, and the silence of God is the silence of listening, of love, of compassion. He never interrupts us. He never cuts us off.
I had very close friend at OSU. We were exactly the same age. We were both professors, we were both members of the parish, we were both married, and we used to meet at the MU every week for coffee and talk about OSU and St. Mary’s and our wives. I could tell him anything, I could be myself around him, and he could tell me anything.
And then he got sick and he died, two and half years ago. I preached at his funeral, here at St. Mary’s.
And then, just last month, this August, two and a half years later, his widow called and asked if I would preside at the burial of his ashes, at the cemetery outside of Philomath, looking out over the fields.
The family had planned to bury the ashes back in the Midwest but that hadn’t worked out.
I’d never had this experience before. It was as if I had to go through my friends’ funeral all over again, renew my sadness and my grief, and it was very hot that afternoon, stiflingly hot, and I just didn’t want to be there.
But as I began to say the words of final commendation, something started to happen. I started to feel the way I used to feel, when my friend and I were having coffee at the MU. I was talking and he was listening. I was talking and God was listening, and my friend was talking to me, and God was talking to me. The grave is beneath a great maple tree, and on the plaque above his name it reads: Devoted Husband, Father, Grandfather, and Teacher. And underneath his name is this. He had asked for it to be engraved there: I love you, I have lived a good life. Thank you.
I could feel the silence softening. I looked down the slope of the hill over the dry grass, and I could feel my sadness deepening into something else.
We can tell God everything, and he will listen. He is always listening.
And God tells us everything, every minute—God tells us everything.