Last week I had a phone conversation with a clergy colleague in the diocese. We have a close though slightly formal relationship. After we exchanged the usual and expected greetings and pleasantries I said to him, “So how are you, really?”
He sighed deeply and said, “It’s déjà vu. It’s just like it was last year. I’m planning for the fall but everything is so uncertain.” I heard his exhaustion and frustration and I felt my own. His sigh spoke louder and said more than his words.
I know what that sigh is like and I’ll bet you do too.
I find myself sighing more these days. I sigh more often and I sigh more deeply. And I wonder if that’s true for you too. I wonder what your sigh is today.
I’m not talking about a sigh of relief or satisfaction, an “Ahh, this is good” kind of sigh. I’m talking about the kind of sigh we hear from Jesus in today’s gospel (Mark 7:24-37).
It’s not only a sigh, it’s a moan and a groan. It’s a murmuring. It’s an expression of something deep within.
Jesus has returned to the region around the Sea of Galilee. The people “brought him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hands on him.”
Jesus took the man “aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’”
“He sighed.” What do you make of that? What do you think Jesus’ sigh is about?
Maybe he’s just tired. Haven’t you had days that wore you out and as soon as you got home you dropped into your chair and sighed? Have you ever sighed when the phone or door bell rang and you wondered, “Now what?” Maybe that’s what happened to Jesus when the people brought this deaf man with a speech impediment. Maybe he just wanted to be left alone for a while. Or maybe he’s heartbroken at this man’s life, the difficulty and struggle. Don’t you sometimes read the news and sigh? Afghanistan, Haiti, Hurricane Ida, wildfires, racism, migrants and refugees seeking a new home, political divisions and public bickering. It’s one sigh after another. And doesn’t the ongoing pandemic sometimes feel like one big sigh?
My wife, Cyndy, often says to me, “That was a heavy sigh, what’s going on?” Let me tell you what some of my sighs today are about.
- I sigh when I’m tired, when I feel overwhelmed, and when I wonder if I have what it takes. I sigh when I feel powerless, when I don’t know what to do, and when I feel lost.
- I sigh when Denise or Kimberly come to me looking for help and wanting to live a different kind of life, and I can’t do enough to make a lasting difference in their lives.
- I sigh when I think of my son, Brandon, and my best friend, John. They both died way too soon.
- I sigh about the things I desire and long for but don’t have. I sigh when I am frustrated, disappointed, discouraged, or exasperated.
- I sigh when I read or hear our local and national conversations about social justice, civil rights, and public health. I sigh when agendas are given priority over people. I sigh because it doesn’t make sense and I don’t get it.
- I sigh when I catch myself living old patterns and behaviors that are not good for me or you. I sigh when I realize nothing has changed or is changing. I sigh when I begin to have the same old conversations and arguments in my head.
What about you? What causes you to sigh today? Maybe you sigh at some of the same things I do. Maybe you’ve got other things that make you sigh. Maybe I make you sigh. If you were to list the top three things that cause you to sigh today, what would they be?
We sigh for a thousand different reasons but here’s what I wonder:
- What if our sighs are the revelation and recognition that we have bumped up against a closed place within ourselves, in a relationship, or in our life and world? Isn’t that what happened in today’s gospel? The people of that region brought Jesus a man who is closed. His ears are stopped up and his tongue is tied. And Jesus sighed.
- What if every sigh carries the words, “Ephphatha, Be opened?”
- What if the exhalation, the breathing out, that accompanies every sigh is the breath of life?
- What if Jesus is sighing new life into the man in today’s gospel, into you and me? Isn’t that the story of creation? God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). And for the man in today’s gospel, Jesus “sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” He was a new man, a new creation.
I think most of us experience our sighs as a resignation to the circumstances. We sigh believing that how it is, is how it will be. We close ourselves off from the future, each other, and the possibility of something new happening. We resign from life. But Jesus doesn’t do that.
His sigh is not a resignation. It’s a registration of his opposition to anything that would contract or constrict life. It’s his resistance to whatever is closed. It’s his refusal to accept limitations or restrictions on the fullness of life.
When I look at the sighs in my life I can see the closed places in me, my attitudes and opinions, my ways of thinking, my version of the truth, my actions, my dreams and hopes, my vision for how life might be. My sighs show me that I still have work to do. They point me to places of growth and healing.
Look at the top three sighs in your life today. What are they about? What closed places are they showing you? What would it take for you to sigh at those closed places and then say, “Ephphatha, Be opened?”
I wonder what it would be like for you and me to sigh together, not out of resignation, but to register our opposition, embolden our resistance, and reinforce our refusal to the closed places in our lives and world?
I think that sigh would be a divine sigh, a prayer, a cry for help, an expression of longing and desire, a hope against hope. It just might be the opening of something new in our lives and world. It was for the deaf and mute man in today’s gospel.
Let’s try it. Pick one thing from your list that makes you sigh, something that is closed in you or closed to you. You got it? You know what it is? Now take a breath. And sigh.
“Ephphatha, Be opened.”
Say it with me. “Ephphatha, Be opened.”
Say it to yourselves. Offer it to one another. Pray it to God.
“Ephphatha, Be opened.”