What follows is the text for my sermon at First Presbyterian Church of Asheville this past Sunday. It’s based on the second part of the lectionary Gospel for the day, Mark 7:31-37.
I’d like for you to meet my boyhood friend, Jimmy. He lived down the road, across the creek, and up the hill from my West Virginia grandparents. Playing baseball or basketball or cowboys and Indians with Jimmy was a highlight of my summers. We had a lot in common: we were the same age, liked Hardy Boy mysteries, wore glasses, and were overweight and clumsy. We spent a lot of time together, and think I knew Jimmy pretty well, but I’m really not sure, because we never had a “normal” conversation—not once, not ever.
Jimmy was deaf. When we were very young, he didn’t yet read lips and hadn’t yet learned American Sign Language. When we were about eight years old, he spent the school year away learning that fascinating, silent language, and I did what I could to learn enough signs to communicate with him. Even so, our “talks” moved slowly, because I often had to look at the little card of signs I carried in my pocket to remember how to form a letter of the alphabet with my hand. Spelling whole sentences took forever. From my friendship with Jimmy, I learned a great deal about how to talk without words, how silence speaks if you listen to it with your heart, and how friendship depends at least as much on shared quiet as it does on shared conversation.
My friendship with him also brought me my first real disappointment with God. The grandparents whose house was near Jimmy’s lived in the East End of Huntington and were fairly sedate American Baptists. My other grandparents lived in the West End of Huntington and were fervent Pentecostals. I am grateful for what I learned from the approach which both sets of grandparents took to their faith.
My West End grandparents went to a church in which I picked-up the impression that, if we prayed hard enough and long enough for people to be healed, then they would get well. When I was in the first grade, I started praying for Jimmy, but, no matter how hard I prayed, he stayed deaf, and I remained disappointed.
For years, it bothered me that we don’t know the deaf man’s name or anything about his story before or after he was healed. All we know is that Jesus had compassion on him and healed him. Jesus took him aside from the crowd and, with a kind of crude sign language how, showed him how he would help him. “Then, looking up into heaven, Jesus sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ ‘Be opened.’ Immediately, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” He was closed and then he was open. He couldn’t hear and then he could; he was inarticulate and then he could speak.
For a long time, I called this man “Jimmy.” I read the story of his healing as a promise that, one day, my childhood prayers would finally be answered, and Jimmy and I would be able to communicate in ways we couldn’t when we were boys. One day, when God’s saving work is done, all of the conditions that keep us from wholeness will be healed. God will dry all the tears from our eyes. God will turn our sighing to singing and replace our sorrow with gladness.
More and more, I believe that deaf man is nameless, because he represents me and you. He has my name. Maybe he has yours. His story cautions us that there is a deafness far more profound than the inability to hear and a blindness far worse than the inability to see.
Jesus’ disciples, who could all see and hear, were mostly blind and deaf to what Jesus was all about. They had a front row seat to the amazing things Jesus said and did, but they still didn’t get it about who Jesus was. They saw him feed five thousand people in the wilderness from five loaves and two fish. They were amazed when he calmed the sea and stilled the winds of a ferocious storm. They saw and heard amazing sights and sounds of God’s greatness and grace in Jesus’ words and deeds of Jesus, but they did not comprehend his vision of God’s all-embracing and all-reconciling love.
They were sure that Jesus was going to lead a popular insurrection against their Roman oppressors and seize the reigns of political power, even though Jesus kept telling them his will and way were far more subversive and radical than an armed revolution could achieve. He did not want to change who was in charge; he wanted to change what it meant to be in charge. For him, to lead was to serve, to rule was to empower, not to overpower.
His first disciples didn’t get it. No wonder, then, that, a few days after he healed the deaf man (in the very next chapter of Mark’s Gospel), Jesus voiced his heartache over their inability to understand: “Are your hearts still hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?” It’s not hard for me to imagine that Jesus has the same questions for me: “Is your heart still hardened, Guy? Do you have eyes but fail to see and ears but fail to hear?”
How is it possible that I have been listening to bible stories and singing hymns and saying prayers and hanging around with his friends for such a long time but I am still blind to how stunning the sheer gift of life is, to how the earth shimmers with the reflected glory of its Creator, and to how each human being shines with the image of God?
I have been in church most of my life, but I can still be perplexingly deaf to the voice of God. I hear all-too-well the cacophony of my fears and the clamor of my ambitions, but I have a harder time hearing the whispers of God’s love, the music of God’s grace, and the call of God’s will.
Why do I—and, if it is true for you, why do you—have eyes to see but fail to see and ears to hear but fail to hear?
It has something to do, I am convinced, with being closed. Don’t miss the significance of the fact that Mark preserved the Aramaic word Jesus spoke when he restored the deaf man’s hearing. Jesus touched the man’s ears and his tongue, looked up into heaven, sighed, and then spoke the word, “Ephaptha—Be opened.”
Jesus spoke Aramaic, though the New Testament is written in Greek. When we find an untranslated Aramaic word, it’s a signal that we are very near, not just to the words Jesus actually spoke but to the core of his being and the well-springs of his passion and compassion.
There is, of course, his favorite name for God: Abba, Daddy: Jesus knew God to be a tender, strong, welcoming, guiding, nurturing, and sheltering father-mother, with whom he experienced an unprecedented intimacy. He invites us into that eternal embrace—to live in the arms and near the heart of God.
From the agony of the cross, Jesus screamed these searing words: “Eloi Eloi lema sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, my God, for what have you forsaken me?”
Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus gave life back to a young girl who had died, he took hear hand “‘Talitha kum’, which is translated, ’Little girl, I say to you, get up.’” (Mark 5:41).
And, here: “Ephaptha—Be opened.”
Jesus will open me and you to wonder, joy, hope, and peace. He will give us the courage to live with genuine vulnerability—attentiveness and receptivity to the people and experiences of our lives.
He will give us the ability to let go of whatever blinds and deafens us to the surprising, ordinary, and extraordinary gifts which surround us. He will make it possible for us to release the prejudices and preconceptions which keep us from seeing the value and potential of the people we encounter. He will give us the capacity to see beyond the surface of life to the meaning which lies in its depths. He will make it possible for us to hear the longings of the suffering for justice and mercy. He will help us to live in tune with the joy which sounds and sings from God’s glad heart within and among all things and all people.
He will enable us to slow down to the speed of our souls, to be still and quiet. He will say to our noisy and anxious hearts: “Be opened and listen to me: ‘I welcome you. I forgive you. I delight in you. I love you. No matter what, now, always.”