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Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 9, 2012

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.

An elderly gentleman had a problem hearing for a number of years. He went to the doctor who was able to have him fitted for a set of state-of-the-art hearing aids that restored his hearing nearly 100%. A month later he went back to the doctor and was told, ‘Your hearing is perfect. Your family must be really pleased that you can hear again.’ The man replied, ‘Oh, I haven’t told my family yet. I just sit around and listen to the conversations. I’ve changed my will three times!’

There is great power in having the ability to speak and there is great power in the ability to listen. That is clearly demonstrated in the two healing stories in Mark’s Gospel today—one in which Jesus really listens to the desperation of a gentile woman who shamelessly speaks her mind and another in which he restores the hearing of a man who is deaf.

We find Jesus ministering beyond the borders of his own land outside the limit of Israel. It was an area that was not populated by the Hebrews. These were gentile territories that had historically been hostile to the Jews. Immediately, he is confronted by a gentile woman who is terribly distraught over her daughter’s physical and psychological state. This is a frantic parent an outsider and knows that she is an outsider. Yet she begs for mercy for her daughter. Jesus doesn’t answer. In fact, he seems to ignore her. After all, she’s not a member of the right race or class. His mission is to the house of Israel.

She is relentless. This may be her daughter’s only chance to be relived of this horrible affliction. Anyone with an ounce of pride might have been humiliated when Jesus uttered 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 who sits on your lap, but wild dogs that lived off the garbage in the street. Not this woman. She has a cause. She comes right back at him: “even the dogs get to enjoy the crumbs that fall from the table.” In other words, if you can’t give me the whole loaf of bread, at least give me a few fragments.

The truth is that Jesus liked assertive women. He did after all, tell the story of the widow who refused to back off the judge and wore him down with her insistence. She has gotten his attention. “I have not seen such faith—no, not in Israel.” She is pushy enough to get Jesus to rethink and redefine his mission—to expand his understanding of his call as the Messiah to the marginalized, the outsider.

On his return trip, Jesus encounters a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment. In that time, 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 had done something really 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 believed that his destiny in life was to live under God’s curse. He did not even feel worthy enough to approach Jesus and risk contaminating him and make a complete fool out of himself. I wonder if those who brought him to Jesus didn’t have to drag him all the way. Jesus takes the deaf man—another outcast—aside and what Jesus does next is striking.

The text says that he looked up to heaven and sighed. He sighed! Was he maybe thinking “Good God, what this poor creature has suffered in this intolerant, cruel world because of his condition and how awful that he thinks it is because you have cursed him!” There is such intimacy here and its kind of messy—Jesus touching his ears and putting his spittle on the man’s tongue. “Ephphatha!” “Be Opened!” And immediately his ears were opened and his tongue was released.

These two stories demonstrate that when it comes to God’s mercy and grace there is no such thing as an outsider or outcast. Yet while this should be crystal clear from these two episodes in this Gospel—and the dozens or more in the Scriptures—it is often lost on
some religious institutions where there is still judgment and exclusion and some of God’s children are still looked upon as outsiders because of their differences.

What God wants for all of us is that we “be opened,” that our lives be opened to the abundance God wants to give us and part of the process is to be able to listen to God’s dream for us and listen with intent. And we don’t need our ears to do that. We need only our minds and hearts.

Jesus didn’t just open the deaf man’s ears, he opened up his entire life. He gave him a new beginning, a fresh start, 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 living as an outsider.

It is hard to believe that it has been a full ten years since this community embarked on a journey called “Doing Church Differently”—a decade of rising from the ashes; a decade of unabashedly proclaiming God’s Radical Welcome; a decade of opening doors for folk where doors had previously been shut to them; a decade of being a place of safety where healing ministry is visible and present every week; a decade of inviting and supporting lay ministers—including children—in our worship and other ministries; a decade of building one of the most vibrant sacred music programs in the state; a decade of offering the community at large such gifts as a Labyrinth, healing gardens, and a gift and book shop. At the end of this month we will celebrate the tenth anniversary of our first Sunday night Compline—a point of entry for so many people and still a popular experience of soothing music and mystery combined.

I wonder if it isn’t time to ask ourselves where it is in our life as community that we still need to be open—To be open to the opportunities God wants to give us, to new ways of thinking about doing church, to the discovery of creative energy that is around us and yet unrevealed, to listen to God’s dream for us and to discern what God is up to, where God wants to take us, how God wants to use us in doling God’s work of reconciliation, healing and restoration in the world.

Today we welcome Thad Bennett, priest of the Diocese of Vermont, who will work with our vestry and staff to help us begin that process. Like the gentile woman in the Gospel, we’re counting on Thad to be pushy enough to make us think about—and in some ways perhaps—to redefine our mission. Please welcome him at the coffee hour today and share your story about life at St. Paul’s with him.

It is easy to become complacent—content with things just as they are. When we do that we close our minds and hearts to the powerful stirrings of God’s Spirit among us. And so today we pray that we may be opened and we offer ourselves—Gracious God, we offer ourselves in the prayer of Iona Community prayed on Thursday at the Celtic Eucharist: We offer our understandings and insights – not to dominate and overthrow one another but that we ourselves might be challenged and changed. We offer our emotions and experiences – not in self-indulgence but that through honesty and openness, we may find and give encouragement and comfort. We offer our skills and talents – not because of pride in our abilities but in a joyful overflowing and sharing of your overflowing bounty. And as we celebrate and offer our common humanity, the very flesh and fabric of our lives, May you, the Incarnate One, be once again embodied here in our individuality and in our community. Amen.

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