Wednesday, September 9, 2015

September 6 Sermon

Mark 7:31-37
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

So, the miracle stories are difficult. For one thing, they can sometimes make us feel bad about our own lives, our own faith, when we or someone we love isn’t receiving the healing we hope for, that we pray for. And that can make you feel pretty terrible about yourself, make you question your faith.
But not only this, because, of course, in the context of our modern understanding of science, the healing stories, the miracle stories just don’t make much sense. How is it that somebody, even the son of God, defy the laws of physics to heal people, especially when it’s not like we see this kind of thing every day. Sure, we see healing, sometimes healing that deserves a description like “miraculous,” but nobody’s doing the thing Jesus did, picking up somebody’s ear that got cut off and putting it back on with a wave of the hand. Certainly, nobody is doing what Jesus did in the scripture this morning, putting their fingers in the ears of people who are deaf and then suddenly everything’s hunky-dory and the clouds open and everybody’s fine.
It just doesn’t happen like that. That’s not how life works, and of course not. We are modern people, thank you very much, and we understand science, and we understand medicine, and so I do not suggest you walk up to random people and put your fingers in their ears, certainly not that you spit and touch somebody else’s tongue. It won’t heal them and it will likely get you clocked.
And yet, here’s this story, and it worked. It worked. Jesus stuck his fingers in this guy’s ears and touched his tongue and suddenly, the guy could hear, had the ability to speak, though he’d never done so before. It’s like Jesus had somehow programmed language into him, magically, had opened his ears, magically, and not only that, but Jesus says what sounds like a magic word, “Ephphatha,” and it is at the sound of that word, almost like an abra-cadabra, the man is healed.
 But here’s the thing. Jesus doesn’t say abra-cadabra. He isn’t a magician. He’s God. Jesus says, “Ephphatha,” which means, “be opened.” That’s not a magic word at all. It’s a command, an important signal to those around him, and a signal to us, of who Jesus is. Jesus is one who opens. We worship a God who opens.
You may be familiar with the tagline of the United Methodist Church. In fact it is on the mugs we give away to newcomers; if you are new, I hope you will pick one up in the back. The tagline says that in the United Methodist Church, we have open hearts, open minds, and open doors. I pray that this is true, that even when it isn’t quite true all the time, because we’re all growing in faith, that it’s becoming increasingly true. But we don’t do these things just because they make for good commercials or because they look appealing on a coffee mug. We pray that we embody the idea of open minds, open hearts, and open doors because we worship a God who opens.
We see this aspect of God’s character in the healing stories in the Gospels. You know, in many ways, I suspect that we understand the whole business of healing in the Bible backwards. So often, we look at the healing stories and think, isn’t God good to heal, but why aren’t we being healed too? Just this week I heard from an old friend, she’s not yet 40, and diagnosed with end-stage cancer. She doesn’t smoke, she doesn’t drink, she doesn’t lay in the sun, and yet she’s looking at death head on. And you encounter that sort of thing, and you think, why no healing for her? She’s faithful. She goes to church. She’s going to die.
Or you look at this tragic situation in Europe, the refugee crisis, and you think, the world is broken. It’s irrevocably broken, when seventy-one people fleeing war in Syria suffocate to death on a truck, when young children, refugees from war and violence, slip from their parents’ arms in the choppy waters of the Mediterranean Sea, their bodies washed ashore like driftwood. And there’s no good answers for why God allows this sort of thing to happen, at least apart from our own complicity in it, but you look at the state of things and you’re liable to want to just pull the covers over your head and never get out of the bed.
But while I don’t have answers for that sort of thing, I do think there’s another way to look at it, which is that it’s not so much that Jesus went around fixing things two thousand years ago and then quit, but that Jesus spent his time on earth, in part, offering signs that he was who he said he was, that he was God’s own son, and that instead of, you know, writing it in the sky or turning a pumpkin into a carriage or whatever, he chose to engage in acts of compassion, of healing, of openness to new people and places, because Jesus is compassionate. God is compassionate. In other words, it’s not that Jesus used to heal but doesn’t anymore. It’s that Jesus chose to use his time one earth in ways that led to healing, and don’t you think that as much as we are able, we ought to do the same thing?
And this is well and good as far as a strategy for going forward, but it can sometimes be little comfort when everything just seems so closed, when the doors seem to close in front of your nose, one by one, when your hope shuts down, when it seems like you are out of options. To be a human and to live in the modern world is to constantly encounter, “no,” to have doors shut in your face, to reach a dead end, time and time again, as if the whole world really ought to have a “closed” sign on its front window, not accepting applications, no more appointments available, not enough time, not enough money, not enough possibility.
And the church isn’t immune from this feeling! So often, in church life, we run up against situations where there aren’t enough volunteers to do the thing we think needs to be done, not enough money for this important new program, not enough energy to change. I’ll tell you right now, if you think that being part of a church is going to make everything in your life seem wonderful, you’ve got another thing coming. You see, the problem is that the church is made of people, and if it weren’t for that one fact, we’d be better off, but here we are, trying to make things work the best we can.
It’s enough to make everything seem closed sometimes, but my friends, we worship a God who opens. I imagine what it must have been like to have been the man taken to Jesus to be healed. Mostly I bet he was embarrassed, that his friends and family were making such a fuss over him, because it’s not like anything was going to change. He was deaf, he’d always been deaf, and you don’t just all of a sudden stop being deaf. He may have lived two thousand years ago, but just because he didn’t have modern physics at his disposal didn’t mean he was unintelligent. He was just deaf.
So when his friends and family insisted on bringing him to Jesus, I am sure he wasn’t so sure about the whole thing. I’ve not dealt with a significant disability in my own life, but I do know that folks who do have such a disability struggle with others’ treating them as if they are less than, as if there is something fundamentally less about them just because of that disability. All of this, I imagine, was going through the man’s head as he sat there and let this rabbi do the magic thing and wave his hands and put his fingers in his ears, because then, at the very least at least, the rest of the people would leave him alone.
Only, something happened. Something was opened, and I don’t just mean the man’s ears. I mean his heart. I mean his life, for he was able to relate in new ways to new people, all because of Jesus. Here he was stuck, closed off from the world, and with a word, he was opened, for we worship a God who opens.
These are the things that happen when we are open, when, in the name of Christ, we do that work of opening. I want you to know, I am regularly brought to tears by those who walk through the open doors of this very church building on Sunday mornings and who sit down and are mobbed by people welcoming them to church. If what we are talking about is the miracle of the open ears, then I think there’s a certain miracle of the open doors happening here at North Decatur, people finding a place in church when they’ve not ever considered that to be possible. We have people here, today, who have been rejected by other congregations, other pastors, who are finding a home: not a perfect one, not a completed one, but a home. We have people here, today, who have discovered within church the idea that they are children of God, which is something they never considered. We have people here, today, who never even really thought much about church at all, but who have been so welcomed that they have realized, or they are starting to realize, the power of a life lived in the direction of faithfulness. We may be modern people, but don’t tell me there are no miracles these days, because I’ve seen the power of open doors.
I have also seen the power of open minds, not that anybody expects to find them in church. I am proud that this congregation is one that takes science seriously. We have a number of scientists in this congregation, people who take seriously that tension between science and faith but who don’t get stuck there, and instead live out that tension by offering their lives in the service of being thoughtful people of faith, and my God, the world needs more thoughtful people of faith. And when you have open doors, and you bring new people in, you’ve got to have open minds, because new people all share one thing in common: they are new! They bring new ideas, new lifestyles, new perspectives, and their newness doesn’t mean that they don’t hold faithful perspectives! The miracle of open doors leads to the miracle of open minds when we are willing to listen to our sisters and brothers who are new and different and instead of saying, welcome to this wonderful place, now conform to everything we already do, we are willing to say, welcome, we were waiting for you, tell us who you are and how you understand God. My Lord, in church of all places, that can happen. And it does happen. It happens every time you shake a hand and really listen, and we are better for it, for there is a miracle in that kind of moment, in that kind of relationship.
And it is one miracle that leads to another, the miracle of open hearts, so that you aren’t just welcoming new people and then opening your mind to what they believe, but you are opening your heart to who and what they are. I was saying to somebody again this week, I’ve said this to you before, but I continue to be amazed that so many in this church say of new things and new ideas that let’s try it! If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else. I was telling this person that line and she said what a miracle! For so often in church people just say, “well, this is the way we’ve always done it!”  And she’s right, that is often what is said, but it is the opposite of having an open heart, and yet here we are, hearts open, open to new experiences, new people, new understandings of God, and I am here to tell you that God can use that! And if you are willing to bring your open heart, to really offer it, miraculous things can happen, God can open even more new possibilities to you, for we worship a God who opens.

And finally, there’s one more open thing we celebrate here. It’s not in our little tagline of open hearts, open minds, open doors, but it should be. It’s the open table. It’s the open invitation to all people--even to you--that the feast we celebrate this day, this sacrament, this holy mystery in which God gives God’s own self to us, again, this table is open to you. There’s nobody, not even you, who’s not welcome. There’s nobody, not even you, who isn’t invited because there’s nobody, not even you, who’s worthy to partake. And this is the promise of grace, that we worship a God who opens, such that nothing you’ve ever done can shut the door to salvation. No soubt, no past mistake, nothing can stand in the way. So when the time comes, I hope you will, too, for the table is set, and like everything God does, the invitation is open, wide open, and thanks be to God. Amen.