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The Tongue of the Speechless

Ordinary Sunday 23: 6th September, 2015
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Isaiah 35:4-7; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37

Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you." Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

These are God's word to a displaced people; words of hope to those forced to live in a foreign land. I don't know about you, but when I read this passage all I can see in my mind are the images of Syrian men, women and children fleeing their war-torn country. The humiliated man in tears writhing on the train tracks with his distraught wife and child; the column of thousands of refugees setting out to walk from Budapest to Austria; the boats dangerously packed with those desperate to seek asylum from war; the body of Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi, lying face-down on a beach in Turkey.

You may have heard Archbishop Justin Welby's call for help: "This is a hugely complex and wicked crisis that underlines our human frailty and the fragility of our political systems" he writes. "My heart is broken by the images and stories of men, women and children who have risked their lives to escape conflict, violence and persecution. There are no easy answers and my prayers are with those who find themselves fleeing persecution, as well as those who are struggling under immense pressure to develop an effective and equitable response. Now, perhaps more than ever in post-war Europe, we need to commit to joint action ... acknowledging our common responsibility and our common humanity."

The Archbishop calls us all to action: "As Christians we believe we are called to break down barriers, to welcome the stranger and love them as ourselves (Leviticus 19:34), and to seek the peace and justice of our God, in our world, today. With winter fast approaching and with the tragic civil war in Syria spiraling further out of control, we must all be aware that the situation could yet worsen significantly. I am encouraged by the positive role that churches, charities and international agencies are already playing, across Europe and in Syria and the surrounding areas, to meet basic humanitarian needs. These efforts may feel trivial in the face of the challenge, but if we all play our part this is a crisis that we can resolve."

Here in Australia we too can feel powerless; the sheer size of the problem is unimaginable. Over the past five years an estimated 4 million people have been forced to flee the war in Syria as refugees, 1.6 million of these people are children. Internally there are 7.6 million displaced people. But there are things we can and should do. Our own Bp Philip Huggins, chair of the church working group on refugees and asylum seekers, has called for Australia to accept another 10,000 Syrian refugees before Christmas. That is something each one of us here can get behind. We could each write a letter to our federal MP urging compassion and a generous Government response to the crisis. And we ourselves can give money to the relief efforts; I am sure that many of you have done so already. There will be a retiring collection after each service today for the relief work of the UNHCR — United Nations Refugee Agency. It might seem like a drop in the ocean, but each "drop" is a human being, and many are children. We really should do what ever we can.

Again and again the gospels tell of Jesus surrounded by needy people. He didn't wave a magic wand and heal them all in one dramatic gesture of power. He was after all, like us, just one human being. But what he did was to offer compassion to one person at a time. In today's reading from Mark we hear of the healing of the deaf and dumb man. This act of kindness transformed the man's life, but it was also a symbol of something far greater. Isaiah's prophecy was being fulfilled. This was a Messianic act. And now, today, similar Messianic acts are for us to perform as followers of Christ. Perhaps it is our ears that need to be unstopped, so that we can hear the cries of those in need. Perhaps it is our tongue that should be released to speak prophetic words into a cold and heartless world.

There is a beautiful story of an American theologian, Chuck Campbell, who taught preaching at Columbia Seminary in Georgia. He would take his students to the Open Door Shelter for homeless people in downtown Atlanta, and teach them to preach there, among some of the most needy people in town. One day he was leading worship in front of the shelter, it was rush-hour, and the noise of the traffic made it hard to be heard. In the middle of the service, his plans were interrupted. "I noticed one homeless man waving to me and pointing to himself," he recounts. "I was surprised when I saw him for the man can neither hear nor speak and is normally very reserved. But there he was, eager to do something. He stepped into the middle of the circle, bowed his head in silence, and began to sign a hymn for us. It was beautiful, like a dance . . .. In that moment our notions of 'abled' and 'disabled' were turned upside down. The rest of us had been shouting to be heard, but the noise was no problem for our friend . . .. Our worship became a token of the resurrection in the midst of the powers of death, a glimpse of God's beloved community."

Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you." Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.


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