Mark 7: 24-30
There was a Professor in Homiletics (preaching sermons) at a great Theological College. Among the points he would make during course was the importance of choosing a compelling sermon title. In fact, he asked students to give their sermon title before beginning each sermon.
He would tell of Mrs. O'Leary who would hop on the city bus on Sunday morning and pass the great churches along the busroute. As the bus would approach each church, she would eye the sign in front with the sermon title and decided, on the basis of what she read, whether to get off the bus and attend that church. His constant refrain was, "Pick a title that will make Mrs. O'Leary get off the bus."
Mindful of that instruction, one of his aspiring preachers mounted the pulpit one morning for his first student sermon. Per protocol before beginning his message, he announced: "The title of my sermon is...`There's a Bomb on the Bus.'"
If I was to give this sermon a title (something I don’t normally do) I would probably name it Ephaphtha. Not the most bus-stopping title I know. But our gospel reading today is all about Ephaphtha.
This morning we read the story of a woman
and her daughter and of a deaf man who has a speech impediment. Each story has
its own distinctive plot and dialogue.
Mark says that the Syrophoenician woman left her sick child at home and went out on her own to find Jesus. For a woman to be traveling alone, and for a Gentile woman to confront a Jewish man, took a lot of nerve. Yet her love for her suffering daughter was deep. She was both hopeful and desperate for help and in her hope and desperation, she risked taking action. She went looking for Jesus.
Picture the scene: during one of the busiest times in Jesus’ ministry, he and his disciples headed into Gentile territory for a little rest and relaxation, to get away from the demands of the needy crowds – a holiday of sorts. There he meets this woman who interrupts his privacy by pleading for help for her sick child. She kneels on the ground and asks him to heal her daughter. She cries, “Have mercy on me, sir, my daughter is possessed by a demon.” Jesus initial response to her is sharp, even offensive. He answers, “Let the children of Israel be fed first, for it is not fair to take children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Why does Jesus use such harsh language and call the woman a dog?
But this woman with a clear sense of her child’s need and her desire to see that need met, was not put off by Jesus’ remarks. This woman is determined and desperate. She will not be turned aside. She does not back down. She takes Jesus’ demeaning words and tosses them. She says: “Yes, Children get fed before the dogs, but the dogs get to eat the children’s scraps, even the pets get the crumbs that fall from their master’s table”. She holds her own in the conversation. In her desperation she will not back down! She’s begging, “Lord, help my daughter.”
This amazing woman would not let Jesus go without a response! She loved her child, and she was courageous in acting upon that commitment. Then Jesus said to her; “You may go – the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home and found that her daughter was healed.
The woman’s reply to Jesus makes her a model of persistent faith. She knew that she and her daughter were undeserving of Jesus’ love and attention. But she also recognized that any attention or healing Jesus might give was pure grace—for someone like her who comes to him in faith. In fact she opens Jesus up to his mission to the Gentiles; it is her desire for his healing ministry that broadens the scope of Jesus actions.
The second healing story is also about being opened. A man is brought to Jesus. The crowd begs Jesus to lay his hands on the man and heal him. If you read the text carefully one of the things that stands out most is found in the 32nd verse: “They brought to Jesus a deaf man and they begged Jesus to lay his hand on him.”
The nameless members of the crowd “they” play a prominent role in this healing story. They bring the deaf man to Jesus in the first place and after the healing they refuse to observe the command to keep silent. They cannot keep silent about the marvelous good news of God’s pure grace. In this second story the crowd becomes the model for the church as those who fervently spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Did you notice that? It wasn’t the man’s faith that led Jesus to act, rather it was the faith of the nameless “they” who bring him before Jesus. And he was healed. The healing comes to the deaf man as a completely free gift of grace. He is healed not because he deserves healing but because Christ had compassion for him and the crowd brought the deaf man to Jesus. By bringing the man to Jesus the crowd acted in faith and he was healed. If they had not acted, if they had kept silent, then this poor man would have never met Jesus. But he was healed and even Jesus himself couldn’t keep the crowd from proclaiming Christ.
Did you also notice Jesus’ action when he healed the deaf man? Jesus put his fingers into deaf’ mans’ ears and he spat and put his fingers into his tongue. And he said to him, “Ephphatha’, which means “be opened.” And his ears were opened.
Today’s gospel makes us to think of who we are. And the gospel makes it quite clear. You and I may be deaf and thus unable to sound who we are to those we live with or meet. We may be so plugged up with self-importance or self-interest that the sound of who we really are cannot get through. We need to be healed. Our God is here and will do it. God’s word can be placed in our ears, and any blockage melts away at his touch.
We are the deaf ones and the voiceless ones who prefer not to hear the cries of our brothers and sisters, and who prefer not to speak up for those who have no voice. But when this Word touches us, he indeed does all things well. We hear and we speak and we do, and the Word is no longer bound up tight in our locked-up lives.
“Ephphatha!’( it’s a great Aramaic word, isn’t it. It rolls right off the tongue. Say it with me Ephphatha). With this word and this touch, this miracle story opens us up to move into the meaning that is beyond the event itself. As we move deeper into Jesus’ story in the coming weeks, we shall encounter disciples and religious leaders and crowds struggling with spiritual hearing and sight.
As Spring begins in earnest, I hope that this word, “ephphatha’ becomes meaningful to you. That you might be open to the future promised by Jesus. Ephphtha! Be opened. Open to God, to one another, to strangers, and neighbors. Open to the orphan and the widow, to the Syrophoenicians and people of the Decapolis in our midst — the “those people” we have excluded for so long.
By God’s grace we are here today in this place. To gather here in his name is to risk being touched by him. When this happens we can no longer remain deliberately deaf and safely silent. We are here. So let us take the risk of that touch. Let us present ourselves for that contact that works conversion in our hearts, and let us then move out from this place opened and ready. Jesus is opened up to the mercy of God and to the pleading of the woman. Jesus is opened up to the deaf man, and us all, to the good news.
Someone is waiting for the good news today. Someone is waiting for us. Go, and bring the good news to your homes, to your friends, and to your neighbors. Ephphtha! Be opened. Where the Spirit of Jesus is, there you will hear the word ‘ephphtha’, and there is healing and new life. Amen.