Open to God
The Rev. Dr. Ross McGowan Wright
The Church of the Good Shepherd
The 16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 9, 2018
Text: Mark 7:24-37
Then looking up to heaven, [Jesus] sighed and said to [the man] “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.
Some years ago, a member of Good Shepherd, Norfolk, announced to me that she had gotten a new hearing aid. She was obviously pleased. Beaming, she told me, “I can hear the birds sing now.” Connie was an enthusiastic bird lover. God has given us the gift of hearing, so that we can experience the fullness of his creation. God has given us the gift of speech, so we can communicate with each other and with him.
In our Gospel reading, we meet a man who lacks both of these capacities: he is deaf and he has a speech impediment. His physical condition is a symbol for a spiritual condition that afflicts all of us. Have you ever had someone say to you: If you would just listen to what I’m trying to tell you, . . . But you’re deaf to what I’m trying to say.” This kind of conversation usually happens when we are being confronted with something about ourselves we would rather not face. It is hard to hear the truth about ourselves. To be honest, we’re all a little hard of hearing, if not deaf.
Or take the man’s speech impediment. We all know the experience of finding ourselves tongue-tied. In a moment when there is something that desperately needs to be said, when there is someone you desperately want to reach, but the words don’t come – or they come out wrong.
Every time I try to tell you, the words just come out wrong.
So I have to tell you I love you in a song. (Jim Croce)
Martin Luther said that God looks with special care over two members of our bodies: our ears and our tongues. Because it is with our ears that we hear the word of God, and it is with our tongues that we confess Jesus as Lord. The kingdom of God is founded on ears and tongues.
All of us here this morning, preacher included, need our ears to be opened and our tongues set free. And the miracle of grace is that Jesus Christ is present this morning to open ears and to liberate our tongues.
* * * *
Jesus put his fingers in to the man’s ears and looking to heaven, said: Be opened.
Jesus speaks these liberating words not only to the man’s ears but to the whole person. The whole person needs to be opened. Saint Augustine coined a now famous phrase to describe the human condition. Our problem is that we are “curved in upon ourselves” (in curvatus in sei). God has created us to be open: open to God, open to his world, and open to each other. We don’t live in a perfect world. And so, we learn to protect ourselves and to hide certain parts of ourselves. We try to hide from God. The first question in the Bible is when God asks Adam: “Where are you?” Adam answers honestly: I was hiding from you. Life takes a toll. And so we turn inward. We become constricted.
The grace of God opens us. Grace removes our fears, so that we can be open to God, open to each other, and open to ourselves.
Joyful, joyful, we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flowers before thee, praising thee, their sun above.
Take for example, the simple act of human conversation. We are having conversations all day long – on the phone, at work, at home, or increasingly, texting. But how much genuine listening is going on in these conversations? It’s so tempting to be thinking about what you are going to say next. Someone has said that modern conversations are dialogues between the deaf. But the Holy Spirit creates openness between people. One of the prayers that we can pray in a meeting or a conversation is: Lord, help me to be open to this other person and the person’s concerns and feelings. Help me to be open to You, God. through this person.
* * * *
And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.
Listen to how William Tyndale translated this verse in his 1534 translation of the New Testament. According to his version, the man was “deaf and stammered in his speech.” He could utter sounds, but they were inarticulate groans. After Jesus touched him, “immediately his ears were opened, the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain.”
The word which Mark uses to describe the man’s new speech is orthos. It is the word from which we get orthopedic and orthodontic. Orthopedic and orthodontic measures straighten bones or teeth which are crooked, restoring things to their right position, so that what was weak becomes strong and what was ugly becomes beautiful.
Human language is a powerful gift. With words, we bless and curse; words can heal or wound; words can create unity or provoke war. We can use words to reveal the truth or to hide the truth. Words can liberate or enslave.
The grace of God heals us from our crooked words. Crooked speech includes more than telling off-color jokes or using expletives when angry. It includes deceit, gossip, flattery, boasting, slander, abusive speech. Grace heals our crooked words and leads us into right speech: speaking the truth in love, building one another up, and blessing. In God’s coming kingdom, we will bless each other and discover the full power of words. In the congregation, we learn to speak the truth in love, we learn how to bless rather than to curse.
* * * *
Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice … I call them by name.” When God opens our ears, we hear the Lord addressing us personally. How does this happen? One of the signs that God is opening our ears is that the scriptures come alive for us and we begin to experience them as God’s personal address to us. Sunday morning worship is one place where this miracle may take place. We gather as the people of God. Maybe we come distracted or grumpy or sad. But we come as we are. We sing the hymns that prepare our hearts and direct our attention to God. We hear the scriptures read. A passage from the New Testament or the Old Testament is expounded. And at some point, the miracle takes place. It is like what happened when the risen Jesus met the disciples walking along the Road to Emmaus on the evening of the resurrection. In the worship service, the risen Jesus draws near. He is present to interpret the words of scripture as they point to him. And as we break the bread and drink the cup, we hear a word of forgiveness for our sins and a word of hope for eternal life. “Risen Lord, be known to us in the preaching of the word and the breaking of bread.”