Franklin Roosevelt uttered one of the most memorable lines in all Presidential inaugural addresses on March 4th, 1933. In the midst of the crippling Depression that had literally paralyzed the country and after a decisive win over the incumbent President, Herbert Hoover, the new President, literally crippled himself by polio, uttered these words to an anxious nation,
“This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
My sisters and brothers, fear can indeed paralyze all of us. Yet fear can be a powerful force in all of our lives for courage and change. The fear of some death dealing disease can be a powerful motivation to change old habits. The fear of loneliness can motivate us to break out of our narcissistic worlds and seek personal fulfillment in love, friendship and commitment. The fear and desperation for individuals and families living in countries where freedom is deprived and economic opportunity elusive can be the motivation to endure incredible hardship to taste freedom and security.
Isaiah the Prophet in our first reading is speaking to a people who know fear. Their land is threatened by invasion by the powerful Babylonians who will eventually lay waste to their homeland and take them captive into Babylon. Isaiah speaks words of encouragement and promise. He reminds his people that their hearts need not be frightened. For they are to take courage in the Lord, the God of the Covenant. He will be their vindication. The psalmist David reiterates this conviction in one of his most beloved Psalms, the 23rd, where we read, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me.
God’s great vindication would, of course, be made manifest and come to fulfillment in Jesus, the anointed one of God. In the Gospels, signs of that ‘newness and change’ were invariably heralded by the wonderful healing stories, one of which we have just heard this morning. In the ancient world, illness was often perceived as a sign of demonic possession and the work of the evil one. And so the people bring to the Lord a man who is unable to hear and whose speech is crippled by an impediment. One can only imagine the isolation that this man must have felt, imprisoned in a world where the simple reality of communication was so limited. The fear must have been overpowering.
In a gesture so characteristic of the Lord who was unwilling to make a spectacle or show of his power, Jesus takes the man aside, away from the crowds. The gospel tells us that he lays hands on him, he touches the man in a gesture of intimacy and love. There is a certain earthy intimacy in the Gospel narrative that says that Jesus touched his ears and tongue with his saliva. And then the miracle of healing occurred. He could hear. He could speak. His world was radically changed and he was no longer shackled by his impediments.
My friends, these miracle stories are the great metaphors that speak to men and women of every age shackled by whatever may hold us in fear; whatever may bind us in our small worlds of frightened isolation; whatever may truly keep us free from experiencing the fullness of life in Christ.
What is it that may be holding us captive this morning? What is the fear that may be paralyzing you from experiencing the fullness of life in Christ? My friends, the good news is that the same Jesus, who healed the deaf and mute man in today’s Gospel, is here with us still. His healing touch awaits our anxious faith to reach out to him and be made whole again. That is the good news of this day. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.