Sunday, September 9, 2018

Sermon for Proper 18

Trinity, Yazoo City, MS--Mark 7:31-27

Most of you are familiar, I suspect, with a text from St Matthew’s gospel that has come to be known as the Great Commission. Jesus has gathered his followers on a mountaintop in Galilee some days after his resurrection, and he tells them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” These were the marching orders of the infant church, and they continue to be our marching orders two thousand years later.

We talk a lot about evangelism these days in the Episcopal Church, which is a good thing, because, not too long ago, we didn’t even like talking about it. That’s a baby step in the right direction. But we’re still not very good about actually doing it. And it’s more difficult at this moment in time, in our culture, than it has ever been since Jesus gave the Great Commission. When many of us were young, you could at least count on most people having some default disposition in favor of Christianity. Not everybody went to church, but most everybody had a particular church that they didn’t go to! Now, our society is getting more secular by the minute, and the kind of claims that Christians tend to make—in fulfillment of the Great Commission, actually—much what we say as Christians is understood by some of our neighbors literally as hate speech.

What keeps us going in this challenging environment—what should keep us going, at any rate—is the notion that we, as the Church, are stewards of good news. Something very precious has been entrusted to us, something that can be a game-changer, a life-changer, for women and men and children who have an ache in the pit of their stomach, wondering who they are, why this world is the way it is, how they’re supposed to be behaving, and what, if anything, comes next. What we have to share is the knowledge that every human being is created in the image of a God who loves them to the edge of the universe and back, that God has intervened in this broken world and is about the project of making new things that have grown old, of restoring all people to unity with himself and with one another in Christ, that the Spirit of this God gives those who follow him the grace to be able to cooperate with this redemptive effort that God is pursuing, and that what we have to look forward to is an eternity of joy in God’s unfiltered presence. If this is all not good news, then I don’t know what is.

The Great Commission tells us that Jesus wants us to hear and know this good news, to understand and internalize this good news, and to speak and share and explain this good news to anyone who has an interest and will listen.

But, like the man in today’s gospel, we are “deaf and dumb”—I know one is supposed to say “mute” nowadays because “dumb” has developed other connotations, but—what can I say?—I like the alliteration of “deaf and dumb,” so that’s what I’m going to say. Besides, sometimes, when it comes to our ability to communicate the good news, “dumb” may actually be pretty appropriate! We are like this deaf mute we meet in Mark’s gospel, because we are unable to hear completely the good news of who Jesus is, and because we are unable to hear it, we are unable to effectively speak that same good news. And, probably also like the man in this story, we find this inability to hear and speak the gospel a source of shame and embarrassment.

Up to this point in Mark’s narrative, the disciples are also “deaf and dumb.” They simply do not “get” Jesus. We can understand the man in the story as a symbol of Jesus’ followers at that point in the evolution of their discipleship. They were attracted to Jesus. They were curious about Jesus, and had a sense that the best was yet to come. They were hugely impressed by Jesus as a worker of miracles, both in healing people of disease and exercising authority over the forces of nature. And they were, to a significant extent, loyal to Jesus. But all of this rested on the assumption that Jesus was going to get more and more famous, and work increasingly spectacular miracles, and ultimately become a political savior for the Jewish people, kicking out the Roman occupiers and setting himself up on David’s throne. The disciples figured they were in line for some important staff positions in the new administration.

And the deaf-mute is also symbolic of us as well. There’s a program called Renewal Works that surveys Episcopalians about their experience of spiritual growth. When a parish goes through Renewal Works, the leadership gets a report that sorts the members—not by name, just by percentage—sorts the members of the parish into four categories: those who are exploring life in Christ, those who are growing in their life in Christ, those who are deepening their life in Christ, and those who are centered on their life in Christ. As you might imagine, the great majority of parishioners, usually to the dismay of their clergy, fall into the first two categories—exploring and growing—and very few in the other two—deepening and centered. Usually only someone who is centered in Christ is going to answer the call of the Great Commission and become an effective evangelist.

As we know, then, Jesus heals the man who is deaf and dumb. Interestingly, he doesn’t do so quickly and with apparent ease, as is the case with many of his miracles. This one seems to require some serious focus and effort; Mark tells us that Jesus sighed as he restored the man’s hearing and his ability to speak.

Soon after this incident, in Caesarea Philippi, the disciples, with Peter as their spokesman, finally confess truly who Jesus is—the Messiah, the Son of the living God. They have apparently heard the gospel with clarity, and now they make the first baby step toward being able to speak the gospel with clarity. This is a turning point that sets them on a path toward Jerusalem and the cross, and then, following the resurrection, to professing him with the bold confidence—the enviable bold confidence that we read about in the book of Acts.

So, how can we join Peter and the other disciples on that journey? How can we draft in the wake of the deaf and dumb man whom Jesus enables to hear and speak clearly, and find a way to follow the Great Commission with joy and effectiveness?

I read an article recently that compared contemporary educational methods with what used to be the norm before around 75 years ago. Some of you who are old enough may remember at least hearing about school kids having to “recite” their lessons. They would be called on to stand at their desks and answer questions put to them by the teacher, or literally recite a memorized text. This has long since not been the case. But the article I read suggested that because kids no longer have to do this, there is an epidemic of college and graduate students who are not being able to read books and listen to lectures and then synthesize that material, make it their own, express it in their own words. They have literally not “learned their lesson.”

This offers us a clue about how we might become better hearers of the word of God and more effective speakers of the word of God. It’s a matter of “learning our lines.” Another expression we don’t hear as much anymore is “say your prayers.” Doesn’t that suggest a child’s bedtime ritual, in which the prayers are pretty much the same night after night? Even devout Christian parents tend not to teach such things anymore. But may I recommend something that I think has a track record of getting the job done here? I’m talking about the Daily Office, the forms for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer as we have them in the Prayer Books that sit in the pew racks in front of you right now. I can give you personal testimony that making a habit of the Daily Office is a “tried and true” method of “reciting our lessons” and “learning our lines” toward the end of becoming able to hear the good news so we can faithfully speak the good news. The Daily Office soaks, washes us, immerses us in the language of scripture and puts prayers on our lips that get to the heart of matters concerning our relationship with God that we could never come up with on our own. It enables to “pray together” with the Christian community across time and space.

If we are faithful in “saying our prayers” over the course of a lifetime, we will find that Jesus is faithful to us, opening our ears and loosening our tongues for the work of mission and ministry in a world that very much needs to hear good news. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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