It’s okay to sigh and groan to God, but then keep working to change the world for the better
Liz Stuart, 5 September 2021
James 2: 1–10, 14–17; Mark 7: 24–37
Last week I spent a few days leave in Norfolk. My first port of call was the shrine of Mother Julian in Norwich. This anonymous 14th-century anchorite who took her name from St Julian’s Church, Norwich, was close to death in May of 1372, 30 years of age when she had a series of visions centred on the cross which a priest held before her eyes. Julian saw Christ on the cross as a mother giving birth to our redemption. Julian saw God only as love. She saw no hell. She saw God in everything and she knew that ‘all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well’. From this woman, walled up in a cell in a church in Norwich centuries ago, comes a theology so original that it continues to delight and inspire people today.
A few days later I visited the Anglican and Roman Catholic shrines at Walsingham. This ancient place of pilgrimage owes its life to an 11th-century woman, Richeldis de Faverches, who had a series of visions of the Virgin Mary asking her to build a replica of the house in which the Annunciation took place in Nazareth. Early construction problems were kindly solved by a host of angels who took on the building project themselves. Walsingham ranked alongside Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela as a place of pilgrimage. It was destroyed in the Reformation but restored in the 1920s and has once again become a site of international pilgrimage.
God has always spoken in and through women as well as men. In our gospel story today he uses a woman to challenge Jesus’ conviction that he was sent just to Israel. Jesus is shockingly rude to this woman, comparing non-Jews like her to house dogs. She responds using his analogy against him and he changes his mind. Last week we heard him explaining to the Pharisees that purity theology was defective, and now this woman shows Jesus where his radical theology leads to: the inclusion of the Gentiles in his mission to establish the kingdom of God. The Holy Spirit comes in many forms: the outline of a dove, the shape of tongues of fire and sometimes a desperate, frustrated and intelligent mother.
The Holy Spirit comes in many forms: the outline of a dove, the shape of tongues of fire and sometimes a desperate, frustrated and intelligent mother.
When my dog Arthur was still alive and had got old, he got very grumpy, and he would often bark at other dogs, at people he didn’t like the look of, indeed at anything and everything. When he did this I would say, ‘Arthur, happy, happy, happy’, and give him a bit of sausage. I had to do this so much that at work, at the university, my colleagues, if they saw that I was in a bad mood, would go, ‘Liz, happy, happy, happy’.
No one can be happy all the time, not even Jesus. I wonder if you noticed that in the gospel reading today, just before Jesus heals the man, he looks up to heaven and sighs. The word used there in the Greek is stenazo, meaning ‘to groan’. Why did Jesus groan? Was it because he felt so sorry for the person he was about to heal, who was both deaf and could hardly speak? Sometimes when we see people who are struggling or suffering, we groan with compassion. Or perhaps Jesus was just exhausted. When we’re tired if someone asks us to do something, we groan because we are weary and don’t want to be bothered. Or perhaps the clue lies in the word used to describe the fact that the chap could hardly speak. It’s the Greek word mogilalos, and it’s a very rare word. The only other place it’s used in the Greek translation of the Scriptures is in Isaiah 35: 6, which tells of a time when the lame will leap like deer and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Perhaps Jesus realises that that time described by Isaiah has arrived and he’s responsible for it, and perhaps he groans because that’s a lot of responsibility to bear. Perhaps Jesus groans because he regrets how off he was with the Syrophoenician woman, and with the realisation how right she was. But even though Jesus might be sad because he feels for this poor man, or exhausted or overwhelmed by the responsibility that God has given him to bring in the kingdom of God, or thoughtful about his encounter with the woman – or perhaps all of those things – he still goes ahead and heals the man.
I read recently that sighing is the way that the body resets itself. Apparently we all sigh several times an hour. It’s a way the body resets itself by resetting our breathing. Jesus sighs, he resets himself, and then he gets on with doing God’s will. What my grumpy old dog taught me is that you don’t have to be happy, happy, happy all the time. It’s okay to sigh, and it’s certainly okay to sigh and groan to God – I think most prayer is exactly that. But we do, once we’ve done that, have to keep caring about other people, working to change the world for the better; and sometimes groaning will help us do that. Amen.