Be Opened

by The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Mark 7:24-37.

Ephphatha,” Jesus said. “Be opened.”

In my last congregation in Minnesota, many years ago, there was a parishioner who had profound hearing loss. He had state-of-the-art hearing aids – in fact, he’d had one of the early cochlear implants, back when that technology was pretty new. He told me once that that early implant was better than nothing, but it wasn’t really very good. He could hear things, but they were more like clicks and buzzes than like natural sounds. He could tell when someone was speaking, but it was hard to make out their actual words. He could tell when music was playing, but hearing the melody, enjoying the harmony, was pretty much out of his reach. The implant was better than nothing, but it still left him feeling kind of isolated, cut off from full relationship and interaction with the world of sound that he knew was all around him.

Then the technology was upgraded, and he got a new implant. And things sounded much more natural, and voices became intelligible, and music – well, you should have seen his face when the organ in church began to play! He told me that getting that new device was like opening up a whole new world.

Ephphatha,” Jesus said. “Be opened.”

The miracle in today’s Gospel is more than just a physical cure. When Jesus restores this man’s hearing and removes the impediment in his speech, he is opening him up to connection, to relationship, to interaction with the world around him. Jesus is giving this man a chance to hear his name called, a chance to speak a greeting or a question or a thank-you, a chance to pray with his neighbors, a chance to break out of his isolation and enter into communication and communion with the world that surrounds him. The miracle in today’s Gospel is about the grace of Christ entering into a person’s life and opening him to new wholeness, new relationships, new faithfulness – to new life with his neighbors, with himself, and with God.

In fact, that call to be opened is a theme that runs all through our scripture readings this morning. In the first part of the Gospel reading today, before the healing of the deaf man, Jesus himself is called to be opened to a new understanding of his community of faith. A Syrophoenecian woman comes to Jesus, asking him to heal her daughter. Now up to this point, Jesus’ ministry has been pretty much restricted to the Jewish people: his miracles and healings have been specific signs of the presence of the God of the Covenant with the People of the Covenant. This woman is a Gentile, outside the Covenant, so she could not possibly understand Jesus’ healing as the sign it’s meant to be; that’s why he says to her “It is not fair to take what belongs to the children and throw it away.”

But this woman is wise enough to recognize that Jesus is using a proverb in this metaphor of children and dogs and Jews and Gentiles; and she’s wise enough to respond with a counter-proverb of her own: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” When Jesus hears that wisdom, Jesus recognizes that this woman knows the ways of God even if she is not within the Covenant, Jesus recognizes that she can indeed receive healing as the sign of God’s power it is meant to be. So Jesus says “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter”; and Jesus himself is opened to a new understanding of just how wide his community of faith can be.

The call to be opened to renewed relationships in faithful community is there in the readings from Proverbs and James as well. Proverbs reminds us that “those who are generous are blessed,” and those who “rob the poor because they are poor” are cursed, because “the rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all.” According to Proverbs, the community of faith goes deeper than lines drawn by economic class, and God calls faithful people to be opened to the common good of all.

That message comes through even more strongly in the reading from James. “You do well to fulfill the royal law of scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,'” James says. “But how can you do that when you show favoritism to the rich and humiliation to the poor? How can you love your neighbor as yourself when you say to a brother or sister in need ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’ but don’t do anything to give them what they need?” This reading from James, like the reading from Proverbs, is a clarion call to be opened to the power of God for the common good in renewed relationships in faithful community.

And it is that very same call to be opened that is set before our church today. The Episcopal Church, the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, Trinity Church – we are all being called to let the Holy Spirit of God open us up to understanding our place in the neighborhood and our role in God’s mission with new connection and new relationship. We are called to open up our idea of mission, to think of mission not only as going out to plant new churches, that will be like this church, only new; but to think of mission as primarily God’s work, as what God is doing out there already in the world to build up justice and peace and reconciliation and compassion, to create worship and communion and joy and love; to think of mission as discerning where God is doing these things and then joining God in doing them. We are called to be opened to a new understanding of just how wide our community of faith can really be, and just how far our practice of right-relationship can really reach.

And this Sunday in particular we are called to be opened to a deeper commitment to work in our community to end the sin of racism. This summer at General Convention we passed a resolution calling on the whole church to take up “the challenging and difficult work of racial reconciliation through prayer, teaching, engagement, and action”; and we committed some two million dollars in the budget to that work. But programs and budgets alone are not going to make the difference. What we need are some fundamental social changes: a justice system where some people are not suspected of being criminals just because of the color of their skin, a financial system where some people are not regularly relegated to a permanent underclass, a system of social customs where everything is not automatically easier for some people because they happen to be white. I think we’ve made some real strides in reducing bigotry in this nation over the last fifty years, and that’s a good thing. We need now to go beyond just changing feelings to changing structures, and to making American life more truly fair and more truly equal for everyone. And the Holy Spirit of God will empower us for this change, the Holy Spirit of God will lead us to understand that the Lord is maker of us all and we all matter and our community of faith is very wide indeed – if we will let ourselves be opened to God’s work of reconciliation in our time and in our place today.

Jesus said to the deaf man “Ephphatha: Be opened.” And Jesus says that to us today, as well. How will you hear Jesus’ call – in your inner life, in your interpersonal life, in your community life – and how will you be opened to reconciliation and relationship and communion today?