Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Gospel is not a Grand Illusion” (Mark 7:32-35)
September 9, 2018
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As human beings we all have a longing to be seen and heard for who we actually are.  Ever since Facebook began in Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room at Harvard University in February 2004, online social media has mushroomed with many millions of people around the world spending time every day trying to be seen and heard.  And yet, while on the surface social media has provided a means to be seen and heard, there is a dark underside.

Last year the American Psychiatric Association posted a fascinating article entitled, “Using Many Social Media Platforms Linked with Depression, Anxiety Risk” (January 17, 2017).  This article asserts, “Research has suggested a link between spending extended time on social media and experiencing negative mental health outcomes” and that “the use of multiple social media platforms is strongly associated with depression and anxiety among young adults.”  Moreover, this study revealed that this depression and anxiety is magnified with the more social media platforms used.  In other words, depression and anxiety are linked to using social media like Facebook—but when you are also juggling Twitter, Snapchat, Google Plus, Instagram, Pinterest, Reddit, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Vine, etc. that depression and anxiety can become even more pronounced.

Why?  For one, the multitasking associated with keeping up with so many social media outlets simultaneously is a factor, as well the risk of committing a faux paus or gaffe (what is acceptable in one form of social media may not be in another).  But there are deeper issues at play.  One is the appearance that other people’s lives are simply better than yours.  On social media other people may seem happier and goofier than you, seem to have more friends and be better looking than you, seem to go on more exotic vacations and experience more academic or career success than you—and all this leads to an internal comparison vortex that will always leave you feeling somehow “less than” other people.  And the longing to be seen and heard for who you actually are remains unfulfilled.

Back in the Stone Ages when I was a kid, many years before social media, when there were only four or five channels on television and the only way you knew what a band looked like was by the photographs on their album covers or in magazines like Rolling Stone, the classic rock band Styx sang this on the title track of their 1977 album The Grand Illusion:

Don’t be fooled by the radio
The TV or the magazines
They show you photographs of how your life should be
But they’re just someone else’s fantasy
So if you think your life is complete confusion
Because you never win the game
Just remember that it’s a grand illusion
And deep inside we’re all the same

And while social media can be useful, often the images we project of ourselves in our attempt to be seen and heard are actually a “grand illusion” and incongruent with who we actually are, incongruent with the fact that yes, “deep inside we’re all the same.”  In late 1999 just prior to the start of the new millennium the award winning author George Saunders stated this in an interview with CNN:

Most of us spend our days the same way people spent their days in the year 1000: walking around smiling, trying to earn enough to eat, while neurotically doing these little self-proofs in our head about how much better we are than these other slobs, while simultaneously, in another part of our brain, secretly feeling woefully inadequate to these smarter, more beautiful people (Gumption, by Nick Offerman 302-303).

Can you relate?

Here is the good news…the gospel assures us that God sees and hears us as we actually are, not as we project ourselves to be on social media—and moreover, God loves us as we actually are, regardless of how we project ourselves to be.  But we are dependent on God to open our eyes and ears to see and hear the gospel—as we pray for those who are being baptized, “Open their hearts to your grace and truth” (BCP 305).  In other words we need God to open the eyes and ears of our heart to the reality of his unconditional love.

Along these lines I am going to juxtapose two illustrations—the first from one of the most influential women of the twentieth century, the second from one of the most influential rock albums ever.

A couple years ago in Tuscumbia, Alabama I visited Ivy Green, the birthplace and childhood home of Helen Keller, who as you know was both deaf and blind.  Helen was not born that way.  As a toddler she had a horrific fever, and as her fever slowly faded away, so did her sight and hearing.  Imagine not being able to see or hear anything.  But one day at age six Helen Keller’s life suddenly took a new direction, as she wrote in her 1903 autobiography The Story of My Life:

The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me.  I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrasts between the two lives which it connects.  It was the third of March 1887, three months before I was seven years old…“Light!  Give me light!” was the wordless cry of my soul, and the light of love shone on me in that very hour.  I felt approaching footsteps.  I stretched out my hand as I supposed to my mother.  Someone took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me, and, more than all things else, to love me (14-15).

Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller became lifelong friends.  On the Ivy Green property there is the actual well where Anne taught Helen her first word: “water.”

The second illustration…on their iconic 1969 double album entitled Tommy the British band The Who sang about a boy named Tommy, who like Helen Keller, was blind and deaf.  Although as you may remember from their hit song “Pinball Wizard”, that Tommy was a “deaf, dumb and blind kid (who) sure played a mean pinball” his inability to see, hear and speak left him feeling isolated—and there were some creepy characters who took advantage of him.  On one of the shorter songs on the album asks one of the characters calls out to Tommy:

Tommy, can you hear me?
Can you feel me near you?
Tommy, can you see me?
Can I help to cheer you?
(From “Tommy Can You Hear Me?”)

It is an upbeat little song but the truth is Tommy cannot hear or see anyone or anything.  Later on the album Tommy utters a cry for help four times in a row, “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me—see me, feel me, touch me, heal me” (From “We’re Not Gonna Take It/Listening to You”).  But near the end of the album Tommy finally experiences a breakthrough and sings:

I’m free, I’m free
And freedom tastes of reality
I’m free, I’m free
And I’m waiting for you to follow me
(From “I’m Free”)

If you have never listened to Tommy all the way through, trust me, it is an epic sonic experience.  There is a reason it has been popular for nearly fifty years.

Metaphorically speaking when it comes to the gospel, many of us are just like Helen Keller, just like Tommy—both blind and deaf.  And in response to a blind and deaf world God did not send a Facebook post or a Tweet, God sent his Son.  To a blind world whose wordless cry echoed Helen Keller—“Light!  Give me light!”—God sent Jesus, the Light of the World.  To a deaf world God sent Jesus, the Word of God.

Many years before Jesus’ incarnation the Old Testament prophet Isaiah prophesied in today’s passage, “Here is your God.  He will come and save you…the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped… then the tongue of the speechless (will) sing with joy” (Isaiah 35:4-6).  Not only did Jesus in fact give sight to the blind (John 9:1-7), in today’s gospel passage we see the literal fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy about the deaf being healed as well:

They brought to (Jesus) a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay hands on him.  He took him 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, “Ephphathah”, that is, “Be opened.”  And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly (Mark 7:32-35).

Think about your life today?

Is there a place in your heart where you feel lost in the dark and like Helen Keller are crying out, “Light!  Give me light!”?  Or can you relate to Tommy’s isolation and his cry, “see me, feel me, touch me, heal me”?  Or maybe you have experienced some of the depression and anxiety linked to the use of multiple forms of social media because regardless of how you project your image to the world you still feel like isolated, like no one actually sees or hears you as you actually are.

But there is Someone who does…Jesus Christ, who not only sees and hears you as you actually are, but also loves you as you actually are, so much so that he died on the cross for you.  Jesus sees right through all your social media images to your heart and offers you unconditional love.  Scripture tells us that Jesus’ death on the cross on Good Friday remains the definitive expression of God’s unconditional love, that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

On Good Friday the One who had opened the eyes of the blind was himself blindfolded by Roman soldiers and struck on his holy face.  On Good Friday the one who had spit and healed the deaf and mute man was himself spit on by his accusers and remained mute in response.  On Good Friday as Jesus died on the cross, Isaiah’s prophecy, “Here is your God.  He will come and save you” came to pass—and the light of love shone on a blind and deaf world “in that very hour.”

Although the gospel is dismissed by some as a “grand illusion,” it is in fact not an illusion at all, for that light of love still shines on the world, including you, even now.

Perhaps today God will open the eyes and ears of your heart to experience anew God’s unconditional love—a love that like Anne Sullivan showed Helen Keller, can catch you up and hold you close, and pour out on you water of life from the Well of Life.

And who knows, you may even hear words from Jesus that echo Tommy, “I’m free, I’m free, and I’m waiting for you to follow me.”