Mark 7:31-37—Trinity, Mt Vernon
During the brief time that Jesus walked this earth in his public ministry, he was known primarily for two activities: teaching and healing. He was constantly gathering people and talking to them about the ways of God and the nature of theKingdomofHeaven, which was breaking into human experience in his very own person, in his life and ministry. Then, he would very often provide a concrete sign of that inbreaking of Heaven into earth by healing people of various illnesses and infirmities. This makes Jesus an immensely appealing figure because, even two thousand years later, and with all the advances in the practice of medicine that have taken place during that time, we can all readily identify with the suffering that accompanies sickness. None of us is without a need and desire for healing, either for ourselves or for someone we love.
There are times, however, when the teaching happens, not as a setup for a healing, and not as an explanation of a healing, but within the healing miracle itself. Today, St Mark’s gospel introduces us to a man who is both deaf and unable to speak. Jesus restores both his hearing and his speaking ability. For that man, of course, the significance of what Jesus did is no mystery—once he was deaf and now he can hear, once he was mute and now he can talk. We may be tempted to smile at ourselves and say, “How nice for him.” But for the readers of Mark’s gospel —and that would include us—for the readers of Mark’s gospel, this incident, this simple act of healing, is profoundly symbolic. It applies to each of us.
You and I are deaf. We are deaf to the voice of God. The sound waves are all around us, but we’re not picking them up. For many of us, it’s a matter of spiritual waxy buildup, and an occasional cotton swab—in the form of a good book, a good sermon, a good conversation with a spiritual friend—a periodic cleaning of the ear can take care of problem. For others, the deafness is more profound. In my line of work, as you know, especially while I was in parish ministry, I regularly have the honor and privilege of being on people’s “must call” list when they find out that their time in this world is drawing to a fairly rapid close. I appreciate hearing such news while the person is still alert and able to carry on a lucid conversation, and I’ve learned not to delay asking the delicate and very personal question: “How is it with your soul? How are things between you and God?”
It is at such moments, it grieves me to say, that I have seen the most chilling evidence of profound spiritual deafness. Far too often have I gotten answers like, “I’ve tried to do the right thing and live the best kind of life I can.” Or, “I haven’t been perfect, but, on balance, I’ve been pretty good.” Or, sometimes there’s genuine fear, because the person is all too aware of various misdeeds that they have so far gotten away with. Far too seldom does the person I’m with spontaneously, without any prompting, mention the name of Jesus. “God” is abstract. We can easily remain detached from “God.” Jesus, however, is less escapable. He’s a person. He invites us into a living relationship. Not nearly often enough have I heard from the lips of a dying person, “I’m saying my prayers. I’m hungry for Holy Communion. I feel Jesus by my side. I know that my destiny doesn’t depend on anything I’ve done or left undone, but on what Jesus has already done for me.”
My experience at various deathbeds has shown me how pervasive spiritual deafness is among Christians—certainly those of the “Christmas and Easter” variety, but even among those who are much more regular in their attendance at corporate worship. For whatever combination of reasons, the Episcopal Church—and, I’m sure, others as well, but the Episcopal Church is what I know—we have produced several generations of sub-Christians. One might call them “ethical theists”—that is, their real creed is “Believe in God and try to be good.” They may actually say the Nicene Creed when they’re present at the Eucharist, but the real creed that governs their lives is, “Believe in God and try to be good.” Mind you, I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with believing in God and trying to be good. Both elements are part of what it means to be a Christian. It’s just that they’re a relatively small part of the big picture. So, if that’s as far as we go, then we haven’t really gotten anywhere. Believing in God and trying to be good bears a relationship to the fullness of gospel truth as does a vaccine to the actual virus it’s intended to protect against. Let me try and put that more simply: Too many of us have been vaccinated by the gospel, which is to say, we’ve been vaccinated against the gospel. We’ve internalized a particle of the Christian faith that is just large enough to immunize us against the rest of it. We understand just enough of the gospel to make us think that’s all we need to know, and we stop up our ears; we become deaf to the voice of the Good Shepherd who calls us each by name and wants to lead us to green pastures and still waters. We say things on our deathbeds that make the priest who visits us want to pull his hair out. We need to have our ears opened.
But the man in Mark’s gospel was not only deaf; he was also unable to speak. We don’t know what his specific problem was; Mark only tells us that it was “an impediment in his speech.” Well, it’s also my experience as a pastor that Episcopalians and other Christians who are spiritually deaf are invariably also—and I use this word in its antique, biblical sense—spiritually dumb. They are not able to tell others about their faith because what faith they have is developmentally disabled. Yet, I’ve also met Christians who do indeed have a lively personal faith, a real living relationship with God in Christ, and a disciplined prayer life, but who are still spiritually mute, unable to talk with others about the faith that means so much to them.
You probably don’t remember this—or perhaps never knew it in the first place—but, in 2003, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church passed this gem of a resolution:
Resolved, That the 74th General Convention urge every Episcopalian to be able to articulate his or her faith story beginning with Epiphany 2004; and urge dioceses and congregations to create opportunities for these stories to be told.
Now, as I recall, during floor debate on this resolution, there was a motion to strike the deadline —January 6, 2004—as unrealistic. But the Committee on Evangelism said, “No, we’re serious about this resolution; we want it to have teeth, and it it’s going to have teeth, it needs to have a deadline.” Well, what can I say? As a national church, we pretty much dropped the ball on that one. But what a wise and wonderful and practical idea it was. I’m not going to ask for an external show of hands, but I want each of you to ask yourself the question right now, “Am I able to tell my faith story?” Not your “church story,” necessarily, but your “faith story.” If asked, would you have anything to say? Could you find the words to convey your experience? If your answer is ‘No’ or ‘I’m not sure’—well, you know what your assignment is, don’t you? You have homework to do. And—according to General Convention, at least—your assignment is about eight years overdue!
I hope you also know that Father Tucker—or, for that matter, even Your Friendly Neighborhood Bishop—would be delighted to help you with your homework, if you just ask. It probably isn’t as difficult as you think. And even if one of us helps you, it’s not really us, it’s Jesus himself working through us. The good news it is my joy to proclaim to you today is that Jesus stands ready and eager, right now, today, to heal us of our spiritual deafness, that we may not simply hear, but understand, the mystery of faith, that Christianity is about so much more than believing in God and trying to be good. And Jesus stands ready and eager, right now, today, to loosen our tongues, and give us the words by which to tell the story of his love for us, and the new life that is available to all who put their trust in him.
Our Aramaic vocabulary word for the day is the one that Jesus spoke to the deaf and dumb man to whom he ministered so long ago inGalilee: “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” We could do nothing better in our worship on this occasion than to allow the Holy One to unstop our ears and unbind our tongues, that we may hear the gospel in all its fullness, and proclaim the praise of him who does all things well.
Glory be to Jesus Christ. Amen.