Sunday, 9 September 2012

Trinity 14: Speaking plainly

“And immediately the deaf man’s ears were opened,” says our Gospel reading “his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.”

The Bible is a big book with many words in it. You’d think that there wasn’t much left unsaid in it, and yet it is often the things which are left out which are most intriguing. Today’s Gospel is a case in point.

A deaf man with an impediment in his speech is healed by Jesus, and, we are told “he spoke plainly”. The thing that I wonder, when I hear this is, “what did he say?” Just imagine if it were you. You have been deaf all your life, and unable to make yourself understood to those around you. You have had your own thoughts and opinions but you’ve never been able to express them. You haven’t been able to tell people what you needed or wanted. You haven’t been able to complain if you were treated badly. Probably many people have assumed you are stupid, and many in this culture would also have assumed that your disability was a punishment from God. Those with disabilities were often judged as sinners or unclean, and were excluded from worship.  So you haven’t just been physically disadvantaged, but socially and spiritually disadvantaged too, and you haven’t been able to say a word about it.

But now, finally, you have your own voice, for the first time, and a whole lifetime of things to talk about. What are you going to say?

I am sure that there will be words of rejoicing and of amazement at what Jesus has done. The rest of the crowd seems to be full of excitement so perhaps you join in with this. I expect there will be words of love for those who have been true friends to you during his long and lonely silence, and an outpouring of stories to share properly with them for the first time.
But you will have other things to say too, things which some people won’t want to hear. Probably other children teased you about your speech impediment when you were growing up: children can be cruel. I should think they might be wondering what you will have to say about that now. The things they thought would always be a secret, because you couldn’t tell anyone, are going to be brought out into the open. And what about those people who thought you were a sinner, and have told you so, again and again… There are going to be some distinctly uncomfortable conversations happening in the near future…

This man now “speaks plainly” we are told. The Greek word translated here as “plainly” is “orthos” – the word from which we get orthodox and orthopaedic. It really means right or straight. Orthopaedic surgeons make your bones straight. This man’s healing isn’t just about him being able to enunciate his words clearly, it is about him being able to speak straight for the first time, to speak the truth, to tell it like it is from his perspective to those around him. Whether that brings joy or unease to his neighbours depends on how they have treated him, but the chickens are coming home to roost. It isn’t just his voice he has found but his power too.

Those who have no voice are easy to abuse; they can’t speak out. We’ve recently seen some terrible cases of abuse in residential homes for people with learning disabilities. How did the perpetrators get away with such brutal treatment for so long? It was because the residents found it difficult to speak for themselves.
Children are always vulnerable, of course. The word “infant” literally means “unable to speak”, from the Latin, “infans”.  Children often don’t have the words they need to express themselves, so they can’t speak out if things are wrong.

It’s not just youth or disability which silences people though. Poverty can also mean that people’s voices aren’t heard. Take the people James writes about in his letter, a letter written to an early Christian community he was responsible for. Rich and poor came together to worship, but when the rich come in, in fine clothes and gold jewellery, they are ushered to the best seats and people, says James, “take notice ” of them. They are noticed. They are heard. That’s what it means to take notice - to listen to someone. The poor are told to stand aside, or sit on the floor. Disciples sat on the floor at the feet of their teachers; sitting on the floor implies that you are in some way inferior, literally lower down, looking up to someone who is assumed to know more than you. James is horrified. What are they thinking of? Surely they know that this isn’t the way they should be, “Has not God chosen the poor to be rich in faith, heirs of the kingdom?” he says. They have their own wisdom and the community needs to hear it, not relegate it to the floor. They aren’t just passive recipients, but ministers of the Gospel with their own stories to tell.

Tales like the first one we heard in the Gospel, of Jesus’s meeting with the Syrophonecian woman, should have underlined this for them. Even Jesus, says this story, sometimes had to struggle properly to hear people, but the fact that he did meant that his followers were supposed to as well. He was way out of his comfort zone – quite literally – in the region of Tyre and Sidon, foreign seaport towns with notoriously bad reputations. Commentators argue about what he might be doing there, but it almost seems as if he was deliberately putting himself in a situation which would root out any lingering prejudice he might have. If that is the case it certainly works. He seems ready to reject this woman’s plea for help – a foreign, insistent, disturbing woman - what has she got to do with him? But she persists, and he changes his mind. It’s a puzzling story if you want Jesus to be an all knowing, plaster saint, but if we really believe he is fully human then surely learning and growing have to be part of that humanity, just as they are for all of us. Clearly the early church thought that was the case, or they would never have included this story in the Gospels, and the fact that they did emphasizes the importance of the message it proclaims; that everyone’s voice counts, and that even the best of us need to learn this, because some people are harder for us to hear than others.

It’s not just the poor or the outcast who might struggle to speak, though. I don’t know whether you have seen the film about George VI, “The King’s Speech”. It is a very moving account of his battle to overcome his stammer. Here was a man who had all the power and wealth you could imagine, who everyone was listening to, but he couldn’t get the words out. “The nation believes that when I speak, I speak for them,” he says, “but I can’t speak.”  He found his voice in the end with the help of a rather unorthodox speech therapist, who insisted that within their consulting room he was just an ordinary person, not a king, not someone who had to be deferred to, but simply a man. He helped him discover the human being inside the monarch, to come to terms with the rather authoritarian and repressive upbringing he had had and in doing so he allowed him to be himself, and the result was that he found he could speak plainly.

So, people are rendered voiceless in many ways through poverty or illness, through the preconceived ideas that they or others have of who they are, because others have made them feel they have nothing to say that is worth hearing, or made them feel afraid to speak. Many people, for all sorts of reasons, have stories they feel they can’t tell, they don’t even know where to start, or stories no one will hear if they do tell them. Often the healing people need starts with the telling of those stories. Indeed often that is all that is needed for their healing.

Part of the privilege of my job is listening to people, hearing things they may be telling for the first time – even to themselves. I hear stumbling accounts of the beginnings of religious faith, sometimes including strange experiences which start with an apology “this is going to sound daft, but…” I hear stories of old hurts and traumas, long buried under mountains of shame or guilt, stories of ancient feuds, endlessly rehashed but somehow never really told in a way that enables them to be dealt with. People can shout at each other at full volume, but never really hear what the other is saying. The first step to healing, growth and life is nearly always to “tell it like it is” to yourself, to someone you trust, to God, and yet, very often people feel just as tongue tied as this man in the Gospel. It can take a long time for us to learn to speak our own truth, and a long time too to hear the voices of others truly, but in the eyes of God each person is precious, with a voice that needs hearing, a voice that can enrich us all.

Ephphtha, says Jesus. Be opened. The deaf man spoke plainly. The Syrophonecian woman got her message across. The poor, if James’ letter had any effect, got up off the floor and had their say too.
Ephthatha, says Jesus to us. Be opened. That might mean learning to speak and to hear our own truths, to tell it like it is for us in ways that heal and help ourselves and those around us, or it might mean learning to hear the truths of others, helping them to speak out. Probably it is a bit of both.   What matters is that we treasure the voices God has given to all his children so that we don’t miss the riches of faith he has given to us to share.

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