When I was a lot younger, the onset of early September didn’t seem so bad, except for the start of school, and even that was a welcome change from the lazy last days of August. Things are different now. In 1985 my father died on the 6th of September. And It was on the first day of September in 1997 that I first learned of the death of Princess Diana. I was attending a conference in England at the time. The news stunned everyone. For a week an entire nation came to a stop. Later that same week, on Sept. 5th, we learned that Mother Teresa of Calcutta had died. And then in 2001, came that terrible 11th day, which we are about to commemorate 17 years later. For anyone of a certain age today, the beginning of September can bring a host of sorrowful memories to mind. But it can also remind us that God is never far from us.
Today, our lives are increasingly troubled by urban violence, strange and destructive changes in the climate, grim accounts of atrocities in Syria, Yemen, and Myanmar (among too many other places), the never-ending war in Afghanistan, the ongoing saga of Brexit in England, the rise of fascism, and here in the United States, wildfires, flash floods, immigration conflicts, and the ongoing saga of political turmoil in Washington. Perhaps it’s just because bad news comes faster and more furiously. But we can still learn from those events of a less troubled era, and that has a lot to do with today’s readings.
A memorable photo of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana taken several years before their deaths shows them walking hand-in-hand, the young princess being led, it seems, by the ancient nun through the halls and corridors of human illness and suffering. Both will be long remembered for their efforts to alleviate poverty, sickness, and shame, just as the First Responders on 9/11 will always be recalled with honor because of their heroism and compassion. Yet, except for their gender and the Christian faith these two women shared along with their commitment and compassion, they could hardly have been more different. And it is here that our lesson begins.
In many ways, our own times are not so much different from the world Jesus lived in or even the world of 1997 or 2001. Then, too, people were sick, impoverished, suffered from what seemed to be incurable diseases, died in military disasters, and languished under many kinds of oppression. In Mark’s gospel, how Jesus met these people and touched their lives pointed to his identity as the Messiah, the anointed one of God, the Savior, so beautifully described by the Prophet Isaiah. But, it is worth noting, the gospels also relate how Jesus, too, sought to escape the crowds attracted by his celebrity. At least there were no paparazzi, drones, or Twitter in those days.
In Jesus’ time, to be deaf, dumb, or blind was a personal and social catastrophe, far more than for us today. Not only did it deprive a person of a livelihood other than begging and any role in the ordinary affairs of social life. Religiously, it meant that you were not only disqualified from the priesthood if you were male, but were even excluded from the inner court of the Temple, which was reserved for those without physical defect. It meant you could not hear the word of God, or speak it, which distanced you even further from the worshipping community. Such afflictions were also thought by many to have been somehow deserved, a punishment for sin.
Like lepers, the blind, deaf, and mute found themselves scorned, destitute, and at the mercy of others. Many still do, as Mother Teresa and Princess Diana discovered. They were counted among the rejected, distant from God. Yet as Psalm 146 reminds us today, and Jesus showed us, God does not blight people with disease and injury, but gives sight to the blind, speech to the mute, and hearing to the deaf, whether by some healing touch of a miracle worker or through the wonders of medical arts and sciences. And that’s important.
Jesus also tells us that spiritual blindness, silence, and the refusal to hear are far more disastrous than physical disabilities. It is those who will not listen or see who are really deaf and blind to the wonders of life and unable to give praise. But sometimes it takes a shock to open our eyes and ears and mouths. One way or the other it is the Lord who raises those crushed to the earth, the oppressed, the starving, refugees, orphans and widows. But God does it with human hands. Hands like those of Mother Teresa, Diana Spencer, the First Responders on 9/11, Syria’s White Helmets, and so many heroic saviors since then. Hands like yours and mine.
It is in human ways, sometimes extraordinary ones, but more often common acts of care and compassion that God works among us to end human suffering, to promote justice and peace, to increase love and care for all. This is the lesson we can take away from the commemorations of early September, one given us in the short life of the troubled young aristocrat who was deeply unsure of herself, and the little old woman who knew she was only a pencil in the hand of God, and the brave, fearful firemen and policemen and other First Responders who reentered the Twin Towers to save as many lives as they could and lost their own. And the thousands of White Helmets, Doctors without Borders, Nurses beyond Borders, thousands of other volunteers… and your grandparents and parents. All their lives and deaths remind us how important it is to give voice to our love and compassion while there is still light and time and possibility. And surely this, too, is to hear the word of God, to see God all around us, and to announce the good news to those who desperately need it. May the example and achievements of all such great women and men draw us all ever closer into the healing circle of God’s love.