Words from Our Pastor

Monday, September 10, 2018

Pentecost 16, 9/9/18: Be Opened

Sermon for Pentecost 16, 9/9/18                       Mark 7: 24-37                                   “Be Opened”
             A liturgy for baptism created in 1523 by our own Martin Luther instructed the pastor to spit on this fingers and touch the ears and lips of the baptized child. At the same instant, the pastor was to speak loudly the word Jesus spoke to the deaf man: “Ephphatha” - that is, be opened. At which point I imagine that baby would start to wail! Not a way we would choose to liven up our baptismal Sundays!
There’s something raw and real about this action, as there was when Jesus healed the deaf man.  It’s forceful, powerful—Jesus doesn’t just put his fingers into the man’s ears. No, he thrusts them hard into those ears. The Greek word used for that action is ‘ballo,’ which means to throw. This is a big gesture—intentional and bold.
Today’s Gospel begins with intentional, bold movement on Jesus’ part. From his home territory in Galilee, he heads north to the region of Tyre. Now Tyre is some 35 miles from Galilee: at a walking pace it’s maybe a 2 day trip. He wasn’t on the way to anywhere convenient or familiar. This was Gentile territory. In other words, Jesus was on a mission.
And after the incident in Tyre with the Gentile woman, he didn’t turn around and go back home the same way. Instead he went 15 miles further north, to Sidon. Jesus didn’t go to these places to be with HIS people; he knew he was entering territory that was home to more Gentiles than Jews—more of the ‘dogs,’ as he named them in his coarse words to the Gentile woman who begged for her daughter’s life.  
Clearly Jesus knew where he was going and why. But it seems that even the Son of God had something to learn. Because on that trip he encountered two challenges that were life-changing, not only for those he healed but for himself.  
So go with me again to story #2, about the deaf man with the speech impediment. Jesus’ work on this guy was dramatic. Remember, he ‘threw’ his fingers into the man’s ears, then spat on them and touched the man’s tongue! As if that weren’t forceful enough, he groaned (the word was translated ‘sighed,’ but the action was probably more like a deep groan, as if Jesus were deeply disturbed. That groan climaxed in a command, “Be opened.” (ephphatha). It’s all part of a primal kind of movement, as if Jesus were physically opening this man up to hear and speak and live in a new way. This is serious business.
It’s a holy act, an act of re-creation. And what comes to my mind is the thing God did in the first creation, the story in ch. 2 of Genesis: God reached down into the dust of the earth (the ‘adamah’) and formed a human, Adam. (Named for the earth from which he came)
The healing of the deaf man has that kind of power. Surely it could have stood alone this morning. But no, we have it paired with the odd story of the Gentile woman who bows at Jesus’ feet and begs for crumbs of his power for her daughter. You might wonder why we need that story. I’m going to say it is necessary. Because before Jesus is ready to open the deaf man’s ears, Jesus has to be opened himself.
His own ears have to be opened to someone who is NOT one of his own—a Gentile mother who pleads for a place at the table and a share of his love and power. Jesus has to be changed.
Now this idea may be uncomfortable, and not everyone who studies these stories agrees with it. But here’s what I think….hanging around with Gentiles was hard for Jesus, good Jew that he was. The historic animosity between Jews and Gentiles had been part of Jesus’ upbringing, so it’s not hard to think that perhaps he had to grow into his mission. Growth is painful. If we believe Jesus was 100% divine and 100% human, then no wonder the human side was pushing against a wider mission that included ‘those people.’ Maybe opening up to that strong-willed Gentile woman was part of living into his divine side. Maybe she was part of his transformation.
Only when Jesus was opened was he ready to open someone else. Surely he felt pulled back toward the old way, the way of sticking close to his own peeps. The groan we hear as he touched the deaf man, and his labored word, “Ephphatha”— might these have been an outward expression of the exhausting human battle between the old and the new within him? Maybe God his parent was whispering feverishly, “Be opened, Jesus, son of the most High God. And then move forward, to open others.”
What a story for this very moment in our church’s life—Rally Day, when we launch a new year of learning, of hearing and telling the stories of Jesus, of modeling for our children what it means to grow in Christ’s love and to discover the Christ within us.  
In all of this, the ears are indeed more important than the tongue. (Every children’s Sunday School teacher longs for kids to learn to listen before they speak, and adults have trouble with the very same thing.) That’s why Jesus opens the deaf man’s ears before setting free his tongue. And it’s why before he does either, he himself must hear the Gentile woman plead for her daughter. She out-argued him, and he gave in to the power of her words: “For saying that, you may go. The demon has left your daughter.”
We could learn from Jesus’ model—To listen first, before we speak. To really hear what others say. To open up to the Good News in all the ways it comes—maybe in the words of someone you’ve never have trusted before, or in a story of transformation that could transform you, or in the simple opening of your hands to receive the body of Christ. In all these ways, some of them stretching us beyond the limits of comfort, Jesus longs for us to be opened!  
Then and only then, from that openness, are we ready to speak the Good News:
·      to repair a broken relationship with loving words,
·      to share faith with a friend (out loud),
·      to say a resounding ‘yes’ to a leadership role that is a definite stretch,
·      to speak for someone who is bowed down,
·      to openly welcome someone who is rejected by others.  
Once you’re open and listening intently to God speaking in the world, you’ll be as surprised as the deaf man was once he could hear—by new melodies, new voices, the sounds of a fresh day full to the brim with God’s love.
Never in any Lutheran Church have I witnessed Luther’s 16th century baptismal practice of anointing a child’s ears and lips with the pastor’s spit. And I’m not in favor of trying it, so don’t worry. But I do wonder if we should go back to that powerful word, “Ephphatha”—be opened. In fact, maybe we ought to use it regularly, not only in baptisms, but in weekly Confession. It’s a word about being transformed, a word about starting fresh, a word about deep connection with God and each other.  
So, friends in Christ, BE OPENED! Then you will find yourself empowered to speak and act, and to be a partner in God’s kind of change, God’s kind of healing, God’s kind of love—love that can reshape this whole wild and scary and wonderful world.
Lord, let it be so. Amen.