Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
The story is told about the generation of clergy at Princeton Seminary who were schooled in their preaching skills by Dr. Donald Macleod. Among the points he often made was the importance of choosing a compelling sermon title. In fact, he asked students to give their sermon a title before beginning each sermon.
He used to tell of Mrs. O’Leary who would hop on the Fifth Avenue, New York bus on Sunday morning and pass the great churches along the way. As the bus would approach each church, she would eye the sign in front with the sermon title and decided, on the basis of what she read, whether to get off the bus and attend that church.
Dr. Macleod’s constant refrain was, “Pick a title that will make Mrs. O’Leary get off the bus.” Mindful of that instruction, one of his aspiring preachers mounted the pulpit one morning for his first student sermon. Per protocol before beginning his message, he announced: “The title of my sermon is… ‘There’s a Bomb on the Bus.’”
We’ve been giving titles to the sermons we post on our web site each week. We do that after the fact so I’m not sure what effect that may have on the reader. I hope it might peek the web surfer’s curiosity.
Tucked in these thirteen verses of Mark’s Gospel we have two distinct stories that should raise our curiosity—each I think with its own lesson but both linked by a common theme. Here is the scene in the first episode: Jesus was ministering beyond the borders of his own land outside the limit of Israel. It was an area that was not populated by the Hebrews. Immediately, he is confronted by a gentile woman who is terribly distraught over her daughter’s physical and psychological state. This is a desperate parent who is an outsider and knows that she is an outsider. Yet she begs Jesus for mercy for her daughter. He doesn’t answer. He seems to ignore her or at least talk about her as if she were not even present. It comes off as the kind of discrimination so many people face even today. She’s not a member of the right club or race or class. His mission is to the house of Israel. But she is relentless and who in that situation would not be. This may be her daughter’s only chance to be relived of this horrible affliction.
When Jesus utters those harsh words about not taking away the children’s bread (meaning from the children of Israel) and giving to the dogs—not the cuddly pet on your lap but wild dogs that lived off the garbage in the street—she comes right back at him with the retort that even the dogs get to enjoy the crumbs that fall from the table. “So, if you can’t give me the whole loaf of bread,” she is arguing, “at least give me a few fragments.”
Now she has his attention. “I have not seen such faith—no, not in Israel.” I think Jesus is giving us a whole new understanding of what faith is. It is not so much a blind acceptance of dogma or obsession with religious law. It is the ability to make ourselves heard when we are beaten down by our desperation and trust that some greater Power, some transcendent Holy One, some all loving Being may be our only hope. And it is about relentless, persistent, even aggressive asking for what we need because of that trust.
This may not be the kind of prayer than many of us may be used to. You won’t find them in the Prayer Book or taught in Sunday School. What this gentile woman teaches us is the power that can be released by gut wrenching, even heated praying when we have reached the end of our rope. There’s more depth to this story but we need to move on to the next episode in order to make the connection.
Now here comes a deaf man. In the time of Jesus, people believed that if a person was deaf, blind, or disabled in some way, it was a sign of God’s wrath and punishment. There was a perception that the person was bad and had gotten what he deserved. The Jews also believed such people were unclean and would avoid physical contact in order to prevent themselves from becoming unclean.
This man had learned that his lot in life was to be live under God’s curse. In addition to not being able to hear, he had a speech impediment. He would not have felt worthy to approach Jesus and risk contaminating him or just making a complete fool out of himself. I wonder if those who brought him to Jesus didn’t have to drag him all the way. Now, in contrast to the meeting with the gentile woman earlier, Jesus takes the deaf man—also an outcast—aside for a close encounter. Can you imagine the horror expressed on the faces of the crowds when he touches the guy’s tongue and puts his own spittle on his ears?
But wait. What Jesus does next is striking. The text says that he looked up to heaven and sighed, perhaps thinking, “Good God, what this poor creature has suffered in this intolerant, unloving world because of his condition and how awful that he thinks it is because you have cursed him!”
Then Jesus addresses him directly and says “Ephaphatha!” “Be Opened!” And immediately his ears were opened and his tongue was released.
What we learn from both of these healing stories is that there is no such thing as an outsider or outcast when it comes to God’s mercy and grace. Jesus raised the eyebrows of the religious right that witnessed these events both by recognizing the faith of a gentile woman and restoring her daughter’s health and by touching, rather intimately I might add, a man who was judged unclean and cursed. Yet while this revelation should be crystal clear from the two episodes in this Gospel—and the dozens or more in the Scriptures—it is often lost on modern religious people, especially in some church denominations and societal institutions where there is still judgment and exclusion and some of God’s children are still looked upon as outsiders.
The deeper revelation here is that God wants us all to “be opened” and part of the process is to be able to listen and listen with intent. I wonder if these two stories are not placed side by side because at first Jesus did not seem to be listening to the gentile woman. She had to speak loud and clear before he reacted. Then he is struck by the loss of hearing in the deaf man and wants to emphasize how important is the ability to hear if we are truly going to “be opened.”
Jesus did not just open this man’s ears and loose his tongue. He opened up his entire life. He gave him a new beginning, a fresh start in life, and a world that would now be entirely accessible to him. The most significant effect of this healing was that this person could now be a full participant in the life of a community—no longer an outsider.
So where in our lives do we need to be opened? Where is our mind closed off and how might it need to be expanded? To whom do we need to listen more intently? That word, “Ephphatha” Jesus spoke to that man was a command – not merely a suggestion. God’s voice today carries the same mandate. Our minds can be closed, cynical, and lacking all imagination about what God wants to do for us and what the Spirit can accomplish in our lives if we would just be opened.
Be opened to the opportunities God is making available in your world starting right now. Be opened to new ways of thinking that will expand your understanding of God’s love for you. Be opened to share with your friends what God is doing in your life. Loosen up your tongue and talk about what you have discovered—perhaps what you have discovered here. Bring the outsider in by your witness to them about the healing grace that fills this place.
Be open to the movement of the Spirit nudging you to try new things, explore new avenues, discover creative strains of energy you never knew you had in you. Be open to God’s grace releasing you from whatever may be holding you back, from becoming the person God has called you to be. “Be opened.” That sounds like a good title for a sermon. I hope it would have gotten Mrs. O’Leary off the bus.