Sunday, September 10, 2006


Proper 18 – Year B
Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 1:17-27; Psalm 146:4-9; Mark 7:31-37
Sunday, September 10, 2006 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, explains openness and interdependence employing the imagery of begging bowls used by Buddhist monks. He says, “The begging bowl of the Buddha represents not just a right to beg, but openness to the gifts of all human beings as an expression of this interdependence of all beings . . . Thus when a monk begs from the layman it is not as a selfish person getting something from someone else. He is simply opening himself to his interdependence” (Brussat, 335).

The Gospel equivalent of this illustration is portrayed in today’s lesson from Mark. It is the story of a man who is deaf and has, as Mark terms it, “an impediment in his speech,” who is brought to Jesus for healing. Mark tells us that those bringing the man begged Jesus to “lay his hands on him.” The fact that they begged Jesus to heal him implies the desperate plight of the man (Gundry, 383). He is unable to speak for himself and must rely on others, on his community, to speak on his behalf. Since we humans rely so much on our sense of hearing to obtain information and to know what’s going on around us, it is likely that the deaf man did not know who Jesus was or that he had the ability to heal his affliction. He is totally reliant on his community to take action on his behalf – to take him to this mysterious man from Galilee in the hopes that he might be healed.

The story that ensues is an account of the healing that occurs. In a rather strange ritual, Jesus takes the man aside, puts his fingers in the man’s ears, spits and touches the man’s tongue with his saliva, and says “Ephphatha” – an Aramaic word translated as “be opened.” And with the performance of this ritual and the utterance of that seemingly magical word, the man’s entire life changed. He is completely healed. Perhaps, for the first time in the man’s life, he can hear and he can speak properly. And in those first moments following this miraculous healing, the man undoubtedly uses his newly acquired gift of proper speech to proclaim the wonderment of what he had experienced, to proclaim the praises of the man who healed him, and to proclaim thanks to the God who had made this all possible.

But what Mark tells us is only about the physical healing. There is also a spiritual component to the healing which is probably even more important for the man, and most certainly for us. Now, we don’t know anything about the man’s spiritual life. But Alistair Bain, a priest in the Anglican Church of Australia, notes that “It is important to remember that people such as the deaf-mute – and lepers and the less-obviously physically ‘objectionable’ – were effectively excluded from any kind of public or outward access to God through the temple. The advent of Jesus meant that the outcast and marginalized suddenly –perhaps for the first time in their lives – had direct access to God” (Alistair Bain). Perhaps, prior to his healing, the man had some sort of faith in and devotion to God. But that faith and devotion would have necessarily, by the circumstances of his afflictions, been relegated to the confines of his own home and his own heart – it would not have been permitted to be expressed in places of public worship. So, for the first time in his life, this man is able to publicly proclaim praise to God.

For us, “the physical restoration of the [man] represents the ability to hear and see spiritually which is given to those who believe in Jesus” (Hooker, 184). This is very important, for as New Testament scholar Pheme Perkins points out, “unless people can tell others what they know, they do not really know it. Believers need to recognize the need to speak about their experience of salvation. They speak to others in testimony and to God in thanksgiving and praise” (Perkins, 613). In his newly acquired ability to speak properly, the man was able to express what he believed. And undoubtedly, because of the miracle that he had just experienced, that expression of what he believed was far stronger and emphatic than anything he had thought about or felt in his heart up to this point.

“Ephphatha,” while foreign to the Greek-speaking inhabitants of the region, was not a “magic” word, like “abracadabra” – it was a common Aramaic word – a common word in the language Jesus spoke regularly. Mark records it to emphasize the power that a magic word would be thought to have (Gundry, 384). But the power and significance that the word had was far beyond a command for the ears to be opened and the tongue to be loosed. “Jesus addresses the word, not to the man’s ears, but to the man himself” (Gundry, 384) – to be open to healing, but also to be open to receiving the love of God – the love of God that makes the healing possible – the healing that is the sign of God’s love. Therefore, that one word, “Ephphatha,” expresses the obvious opening of the man’s ears and loosening of his tongue. But it also expresses his openness to God’s love, manifested in his healing, and his openness to publicly express his faith and to proclaim the love of God that he has experienced first-hand through the miracle bestowed at the hands of Jesus. Jesus is addressing the word to the man, with the intent that it be heard by all of us – “Ephphatha” – be opened.

So what does “Ephphatha” mean for us? For those of us who are able to hear and to speak? For those of us who are able to publicly proclaim our faith? Obviously, this word, spoken to us, today, in this place, is not in response to physical deafness or muteness. Rather, it is in response to a spiritual deafness, which leads to a spiritual muteness. Or rather, I should more appropriately say it is in response to the potential for spiritual deafness, which leads to spiritual muteness.

Merriam-Webster’s On-Line Dictionary defines “deaf” as “lacking or deficient in the sense of hearing : unwilling to hear or listen.” “Mute” is defined as being “unable to speak : lacking the power of speech : characterized by absence of speech: as felt or experienced but not expressed.” If we are spiritually deaf, we are unwilling or unable to hear or listen to what God is saying to us, what God is calling us to do or be. If this happens, the likely result is spiritual muteness – a condition in which we may have felt or experienced God’s grace and mercy, but are not able to express it. It’s not that we haven’t had experiences of grace in our lives. It’s more a matter of either not having the language to express it, or not having recognized God working in our lives because we have, for whatever reason, tuned out God’s voice.

I don’t mean to come off as accusatory or unduly harsh. Spiritual deafness is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s part of being human. I believe in large part that it is a symptom of our current age and society. It has been since at least the Enlightenment, if not before. I myself have been known to suffer from this affliction. Let me tell you about one of my “Ephphatha” experiences – perhaps my biggest “Ephphatha” experience.

Ever since high school, I have struggled with a sense of being called to ordained ministry. Invariably, I would be going along my merry way, engrossed in my own life, when all of a sudden I would get this overwhelming feeling that God was calling me to ordained ministry. Being basically happy with my life the way it was, I would generally just ignore those feelings, and they would go away. The spiritual equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and saying loudly, “La la la la la, I can’t hear you.” And sure enough, God would go away. So I would continue with my life for awhile, until, boom, there were those feelings again. This went on for a number of years. I would have months of uninterrupted bliss and then God would pop in again with the same old request. I don’t remember when exactly it was, but ignoring these periodic interruptions by the Divine just didn’t seem to work anymore. I suppose it made God happy that I was finally listening. God now had my attention, but I still had no intention of actually hearing, let along acting.

I decided that I needed to change my approach. So, I began arguing with God. I came up with all sorts of great reasons why I shouldn’t go into the priesthood – all sorts of roadblocks to preclude me from following God’s call. Even though I wasn’t listening to God, God seemed to be listening to me. God took the hint and left me alone. And I continued with my contented little life. For a little while, anyway. But God can be persistent. After a while, God would come back with the same old request. And I can be very stubborn. I would rattle off the same list of excuses, plus any new ones I have come up with. This went on for years – the battle of wills between God and yours truly. Over time the frequency between interruptions became shorter and shorter, and the intensity of the encounters with God became stronger and stronger. Eventually, the sense of call became so intense that I finally had to give in to God and start listening to what God was saying – to start really hearing the message. I realized that I had to be open to God. And the rest, as they say, is history. But one of the things that I learned through the experience was that when I really listened to what God was asking and was open to God, I was blessed beyond measure. All the roadblocks I had thrown up disappeared, and all the problems I anticipated never materialized. God took care of it all.

As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once commented, “The moment one definitely commits oneself then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings, and material assistance, which no man would have dreamed would come his way” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe). But if I am brutally honest with myself, I still have bouts with spiritual deafness. Only now, it’s more a matter of just plain not hearing, as opposed to willfully tuning out or ignoring God. Having completely turned my life upside down to follow God’s calling, I know better. I know the love and mercy of God that Goethe was talking about. Sometimes I just get too wrapped up in what I’m doing and don’t take time to listen for God’s voice. That gentle voice gets drowned out by the cacophony that is my own thoughts and frenetic activity.

That’s one of my own examples of struggling with spiritual deafness. Perhaps you have your own, to some extent or another. So how do we counteract the affliction of spiritual deafness? We need to learn to listen in a new way. Rather, we first need to be opened to listening, to hearing, in a new way. As today’s Gospel demonstrates, Jesus has spoken the invitation to allow that to happen – “Ephphatha” – be opened. He has spoken those words to us a number of times. They are spoken to us every time we walk into this place. They are spoken to us and made part of us by virtue of our baptisms. They are spoken to us and reinforced every time we approach this table to participate in the Eucharist and partake of Christ’s Body and Blood.

Sometimes the invitation to “Ephphatha” can actually be heard with the ears. Sometimes it is heard in the words of Scripture – possibly even an old familiar passage you have heard numerous times before, but then you hear it as with new ears, speaking to you in a way it never has before. Sometimes it is heard in the words of our prayers – in the Prayers of the People or a collect or the Eucharistic Prayer. Sometimes it is heard in a hymn sung by the congregation or an anthems sung by the choir. And hopefully, on occasion, it is heard in the words of a sermon.

But the invitation to “Ephphatha” is not always heard with our ears. More often than not, the invitation to be opened is not audible, but is conveyed in more subtle ways. Maybe it is experienced in the gentle smile of a fellow parishioner. Or maybe felt through a handshake or an embrace during the Peace. Or perhaps it is conveyed in a kind gesture or a helping hand. In these cases, the invitation of “Ephphatha” is only discerned as a gut feeling – it is felt in the heart. You may not know it at the time, but that’s what’s happening. The Spirit is issuing you a subtle invitation to be opened – to be opened to the love of God as manifested through another person.

To more fully hear what God is saying to us, our hearts need to be opened – opened to the Word proclaimed in the liturgy, and to the inaudible word proclaimed in the actions of those around us. We need to start listening with our hearts. I wish I had some magic formula for how to make that happen. But as Rabbi David A. Cooper comments, “Our work is not so much to find a teacher as to improvise our own receptivity and sharpen our ability to hear the teachings all around us” (Brussat, 283). What I can offer is the example of the deaf-mute in today’s Gospel lesson. What his example tells us is that to be able to listen with our hearts, we need to be open to the healing power of Christ – to the knowledge that regardless of who we are or what we have done, Christ offers and gives the gift of healing – the gift of hearing in a new way, with our hearts.

In his book Silence of Unknowing, Terence Grant, a specialist in Eastern and Christian mysticism, offers the following suggestion: “If we want to learn more about Christ, if we want to experience Christ more deeply in our lives, then we have to be open to things that might seem alien, threatening to us” (Grant, 35). We must allow ourselves to be open, to be vulnerable, to be willing to trust in the God who gives us these experiences – and to be willing to take the time to sit in silence with those experiences, with the God who reveals Godself in them, and to discern what is being spoken from the heart of God to our own hearts.

Receiving the gift of healing and hearing requires that we respond in some way. As demonstrated in the Gospel lesson, the opening of the heart that occurs not only brings new hearing, but also a new ability to speak. We gain the ability, even the uncontrollable desire to proclaim God’s glory and praise. This serves as an example to others, just as the deaf man is an example to us. And while not specifically discussed in the Gospel, Jesus’ overall message is clear – we are called to be opened to others. We are called to help others to hear the word of God. We are called to help others be healed and transformed into the persons God has called them to be, just as we are being transformed into who God is calling us to be. And we are called to help others speak – to speak for those who have not been heard by society, so that they too may be healed and transformed into who God is calling them to be.

“The basis of the Good News about Jesus in Mark's Gospel is that Jesus restores people to community. His healings are about incorporating people into a new system where there are no outcasts” (Br. Clark Berge, SSF). Christ died so that we might be healed, that we might be given a new way of hearing and speaking, that we may no longer be alienated from God or each other, but be restored to community. We are called to be open to God’s message; to be open to the possibilities; to live into that example; to proclaim the love and mercy that God has for all creation; and, in the process, to welcome each other into a new way of being where we are all sisters and brothers, inextricably linked in and through the heart of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Bain, Alistair. “Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Year B.” Sermons That Work: Selected Sermons, September 2000 (5 September 2006).

Berge, Clark. “Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Year B.” Sermons That Work: Selected Sermons, September 2000 (5 September 2006).

Brussat, Frederic and Mary Ann. Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Grant, Terence. The Silence of Unknowing: The Key to the Spiritual Life. Liguori, MO: Liguori/Triumph, 1995.

Gundry, Robert H. Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993.

Hooker, Morna D. The Gospel According to Mark. In Black’s New Testament Commentaries series. London: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991.

Perkins, Pheme. “The Gospel of Mark: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. VIII of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

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