Sermon for Proper 18
St John's, Albion--Mark 7:31-37, Isaiah 35:4-7a, James 1:17-27
One of the “hats” that I used to wear before I acquired the fancy hats I wear now was that of “professor”—in the Diocese of San Joaquin one where I served as a priest for 13 years, I had a hand in the academic formation of future deacons and priests. So, from time to time, I used to grade papers, papers that I myself had assigned. Some students, of course, have an easier time with written communication than others, but reading their work was an important component in the process of evaluating how much they knew and what they had learned. It also served as a sort of mirror for me, because it gave me a clue as to what they thought I’d said in my lectures and what they thought the assigned reading meant. I have my own ideas about such things, of course, and they didn’t always match what I read in the papers my students submitted, which only serves to illustrate the complexity of the process of speaking and hearing and learning, and how fragile that process is, and how it’s vulnerable to breaking down at any given point along the way. If I look at a classroom—or a church, for that matter!—full of confused facial expressions, it could be a sign that I need to find different words to make my point; I’m not being effectively heard. There’s a disconnect between my speaking and their hearing.
Hearing well was crucial for my students. It’s also crucial for anyone who claims to be a Christian or wants to be a Christian, because there’s no way we can understand the Christian message to be “gospel,” to be good news, unless we hear it in some form. Our encounters with the word of God might be in spoken form—through a preacher or teacher or conversation partner. Our encounter with the word of God might be in written form—in the pages of scripture. Or our encounter with the word of God might be in an acted, lived-out form—in a deed of kindness, compassion, or love; or in the liturgy and sacraments of the Church.
When our ability to “hear” the gospel, our ability to recognize the word of God when it hits our senses—when this ability is impaired, or compromised in any way, the consequences are tragic, because we then fail to truly understand the importance of the gospel message. There’s a disconnect between what God is saying and what we are hearing. We are therefore unable to understand, first, the extent of the mess we’re in, as a human race, and as individuals. It may not be very fashionable to say this very loudly or very often—and, some, to be sure, say it too loudly and too often—but it does need to be said, from time to time, by a voice that is considered reasonable, which I hope mine is, of course! What needs to be said is this: Left to our own resources and our own inclinations, we’re all on a fast track to Hell! We're all on a fast track to everlasting separation from God, the source of our life and being, and alienation from everything that it means to be human. We’re doomed. We’re going to end up eternally miserable and be miserable getting there. All the pain and illness and grief and disappointment that we suffer now is just a down payment on that misery. If nothing is done to intervene, that’s what awaits us. If our ears are stopped up and we can’t hear, we won't know what a mess we’re in, and we’ll go on living just like nothing is particularly wrong.
That’s Part One of a two-part gospel message. I know, it’s grim. Part Two is this: God has intervened. God, in His infinite love, has provided the means by which we can be liberated from the grip of alienation and death, saved from our miserable fate, and share in the very life of God. This is made possible by the “amazing grace” available to us in Christ Jesus. But if our ears are stopped up, and we can’t hear properly, we won’t realize just how good this news really is, and we will—along with many others, I have to say—treat Christian faith and Christian religious practice as good things to have in our lives, as something we have a vague sense that we should pay more attention to—someday—but as largely peripheral concerns, nowhere near the center of our lives. In so doing, we make a huge mistake. We’re not getting the message. There is a tragic disconnect between what Christianity actually is, and what we perceive it to be.
When we can’t hear properly, we’re like people living in the path of a dangerous hurricane who to fail to heed repeated warnings or who reject help evacuating, because they don’t believe they’re really in danger, and don’t understand how fortunate they are to have the opportunity to be rescued. Such failure to hear and understand can come from a number of different factors. Some people in the world, believe it or not, have never heard the name of Christ or never encountered the word of God in any form other than what is available to all in nature. There are not many such completely unevangelized peoples, but they do exist. More, however, are deaf to the gospel out of casual neglect, simply not realizing what’s at stake, not realizing that it’s actually important enough to pay attention to. Still others are impervious to the gospel message out of willful avoidance. Those who intentionally evade the searching but loving gaze of God are invariably shackled by guilt or fear, or both. It is a sad irony that when we are guilty or afraid, and therefore most in need of being set free, that very guilt and fear prevents us from accepting the liberation that God wants to give us.
Of course, in the midst of such an epidemic of spiritual deafness, of inability to hear the gospel of Christ clearly, we are also largely mute, unable to speak that gospel clearly. Deafness and muteness often travel together. When we are unable to hear and understand the word of God, how can we be expected to articulate the word of God, either in word or in deed? When I would read a student paper that simply did not say what needed to be said, I didn’t just wonder about that person’s ability to verbalize about what was in his or her brain, I wondered about what did or did not get into that brain in the first place! Failure to speak is often a sign of failure to hear.
But I’m here to tell you, I’ve got good news on top of good news! The underlying good news, of course, that, to put it briefly, “Jesus saves.” But the good news on top of that is that Jesus also stands ready to liberate us from the deafness that keeps us from hearing the gospel in its fullness, and from the muteness that keeps us from proclaiming the gospel in its fullness. We have this touching gospel narrative from the seventh chapter of Mark today. Jesus is just back from a short trip to southern Lebanon, and he’s confronted with a man who, as Mark tells us, “was deaf and had an impediment in his speech.” Jesus then takes the man aside privately and does something that later developed Christian theology would call a “sacramental act,” that is, he put his own fingers on the man’s ears and placed some of his own saliva on the man’s tongue and said, in Aramaic, ephphaphtha, which means, “Be opened.” Now this was literally and immediately a blessed event for that man, but the significance of Jesus’ actions and words in that moment go far beyond a ministry of compassion to one individual person. What transpired that day is a potent symbol, available for all to see, of what Jesus wants to accomplish for all of us, for you and for me. He stands ready to open our ears, that we may hear the gospel clearly, and to loosen our tongues, that we make speak the word of God clearly. Jesus wants to clean up the lines of communication; he wants to see that the cycle of teaching and learning is flowing freely. Appropriately enough, as the sacramental ministry of the Church developed, this symbolic opening of the ears and the mouth became one of the elements of final preparation for baptism. The ears and the lips of the catechumen would be anointed with oil, and the minister would solemnly say, “Ephphaphtha—be opened.” The significance, of course, is that, in baptism, we receive the grace of God in all its fullness, and are commissioned to testify to that grace, to bear witness to the love of God in word and in deed. When the healing ministry of Jesus enables us to hear properly, then we “get it.” We realize what a big deal this Christianity business is. We realize the extent of the mess we’re in, and the depth of the misery that Christ saves us from. We receive the ability to “speak” plainly, as Mark tells us the man healed by Jesus was able to do. And, if we are faithful in receiving that grace, we are also able to speak prudently, in view of today’s warning from St James about the potential destructive power of the tongue, even when speaking the truth. Can you imagine what our life together in this diocese, including here at St John’s, could be like? Can you imagine what the combined witness of all our Eucharistic Communities could be, if we all had our ears cleaned and our tongues loosened? I can imagine, and I get really excited when I do. If you’re feeling like your ears are stopped up today, if you’re feeling tongue-tied in you’re ability to articulate your faith, then I invite you to do three things: First, as we offer this Eucharist together, let the special intention of your heart be for the healing of your own spiritual deafness and muteness. Then, when you come forward to receive the sacrament, feel the loving touch, the compassionate “sacramental act” of Christ, opening your ears and loosening your tongue. Then, after the service, let me know what you’ve done. If you’d like, I’d be happy to pray with you privately.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.