Rev. Danielle K Bartz September 5, 2021
Mark 7:24-37 “Ephphatha – “Be Opened”
About 20 years ago, the United Church of Christ invested heavily in a media campaign as it launched it’s ‘Still-Speaking’ initiative. For those of you who do not know, the tagline of the UCC is: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma; God is still speaking.” When the ‘Still-Speaking’ initiative was launched, several nationally aired television commercials were released. There are two I remember the best: the bouncer ad and the ejector button ad. The bouncer ad showed two stereo-typical muscly bouncers outside a church door. While they allowed white, heterosexual families in – they barred from the church a gay couple, a Hispanic boy, a Black woman, a single mother, a woman with an unkempt appearance, and a man in a wheelchair. The commercial then cuts to an inclusive church community – and the screen says “God doesn’t reject people and neither do we.” A voice then comes on that says the familiar line: “In the United Church of Christ, whoever you are, and wherever you are along life’s journey, you are welcome here.” The ejector button ad is very similar, just rather than having bouncers at the door stopping folks, the people in the pews who don’t fit a certain mold are, rather comically, ejected from their seats.
Those television commercials were very clever, extremely successful, and caused quite a stir. A lot of people were offended, and the UCC was proud. In a few 30 second tv spots, the UCC pointed out the hypocrisy of so many worshipping communities and declared that we strive to do better. I loved those commercials, always stopped what I was doing to watch and made sure anyone else in the room with me knew that that was my church.
But, it has led me to wonder, what would those commercials look like today? Whose voices and presence are still not welcomed into the full life of a faith community? In this over-whelming polarized time, when we are so quick to declare some people good and everyone else bad, whose voices do we need to be opened to hearing? Because, when we declare God is still speaking, I understand that to mean that God is still speaking with the voices of our neighbors and our strangers – and we have to be open to hearing those voices in all of their complex diversity.
Another reason I have been thinking about those old UCC commercials is because, while some say “God doesn’t reject people, and neither do we;” a few others say, “Jesus didn’t reject people, and neither do we.” That seems rather counter-intuitive when held up against the first healing story in today’s scripture lesson. The story of the Syrophoenician woman, whose daughter is in need of healing, is a troubling one. The woman comes to Jesus, gets on her knees, begs Jesus to heal her daughter, and Jesus responds this way, from verse 27: “He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’” The woman, a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin – a people vilified by the Jews, is referred to as a dog by Jesus. But this is an extraordinary woman. She confronts Jesus and he heals her daughter.
I have heard clergy do impressive theological gymnastics to explain away Jesus’ initial reaction to the woman. I will not do that. I will not try to explain away Jesus’ harsh and prejudice statement. I will not offer excuses and twist the text in such a way that removes the emotional power of this story. I believe Jesus responded from a very human place of learned prejudice. The man of Jesus grew up within a community that declared Gentiles and those whose nationality was Syrophoenician were not fully human. Referring to the woman and her daughter as a dog was a known slur. I will not explain any of that away.
As I said, this was an extraordinary woman. She no doubt expected that response, but she was a mother whose child was in need and was unwilling back down. She challenged Jesus. She confronted his prejudice. She said, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” How I hear that? “Sir, you have been preaching the Good News that God’s favor is for everyone, that God’s Kingdom is one of abundance. Now you need to make that real.” In that moment, God’s still-speaking voice was the voice of a woman, whose religious and ethnic differences made her a 2ndclass citizen. God spoke to Jesus with the voice of that woman and Jesus listened. He chose to listen, instead of turning away. He chose to be changed, instead of digging in. He chose to see himself through the eyes of another, and decided to do better. That is why I will never explain away his initial response, and I will challenge all attempts to do so. If Jesus is to be our teacher and guide, then this lesson is one of the most powerful – because we watch as our teacher and guide learns out loud, confronts his own limitations, and strives to do better. That is the type of teacher we all need. This is a story about miraculous healing, but I am not just referring to the woman’s daughter. Jesus experiences a healing as well. His ears are opened to hear the voice of God, and he speaks a blessing with newfound clarity.
But, that is not where the story ends. That interaction is paired with another. A deaf man with a speech impediment is brought to Jesus for a healing. And he is healed. His ears are opened to hear, and his voice is corrected so he can speak. It is the same story, told in a new way to reinforce the power of the healing. Jesus, having experienced his own healing shares that same healing with another. He says to the man, Ephphatha, which means ‘Be Opened.’ The man’s ears are opened so he can hear the voice of God speaking to him through the voices of those around him. The man’s tongue is loosed so he can speak words of blessings freely and without prejudice. I believe these two stories are paired together in the Gospel because we are to follow the example of Jesus – to be opened and to share that miracle with all those we encounter.
In the United Church of Christ we like to say that God is still speaking. By declaring that we are then compelled to ask ourselves, in whose voice is God speaking? Whose voice do we need to be opened to hear? The voice of the immigrant and the refugee. The voice of the gender fluid and sexually expressive. The voice crying Black Lives Matter. The voice of the unhoused and mentally ill. The voice of our neighbors who think and vote differently. Whose voices do we need to be opened to hear? What prejudices do we need to encounter and be healed of?
And, how do our tongues need to be loosed to speak blessings to all those we encounter? What words do we need to speak so everyone’s voice can be heard? What grace do we need to share? What words of healing need to be uttered?
20 years ago the UCC commercials caused a stir because of their radically inclusive nature. Local congregations wondered if they could make real the teachings of Jesus that were being portrayed for all the nation to see. But, the radically inclusive nature of those commercials seem almost quaint today. Our understanding of the diversity of human identity and expression, our more inter-twined world, the population changes caused by war and climate refugees – the face of God is growing more diverse. And for this we say, thanks be to God. And because of this we must once again strive for Ephphatha, to ‘Be opened’ to hearing God’s voice spoken to us today. We have an extraordinary example and guide in the person of Jesus Christ – someone unafraid to have his prejudices challenged and learn to hear and speak in new ways. So, this week I encourage you to prayerfully and truthfully wonder whose voices and presence are being excluded – who is being stopped by bouncers at the door or ejected from a place of worship? I will not answer that question for you, we must all look within and outside of ourselves. But by doing so, we can begin to be opened for those voices to speak to us in new ways. And as we strive to do this, I want to end with a blessing and prayer written by theological poet Steve Garnaas-Holmes:
Ears, be opened,
to hear the song of God.
Eyes, be opened,
to see with love.
Heart, be opened,
to trust the blessing.
Mind, be opened,
to accept what I have not yet seen.
Lips, be opened,
to utter grace.
Heaven, be opened,
that I may be close to God.
Soul, be opened,
to receive the Beloved who is here.
People, be opened
to the miracle among you.
like the Israelites in the wilderness,
we too have known Your love,
and experienced Your care and provision.
You invite us to extend that love to the world around us—
to care for others as deeply as we care for ourselves.
And so we bring the needs of our world before You now.
In Your mercy, hear our prayer.
We pray for the many who do not have enough:
enough food to eat, or shelter to keep warm;
enough employment, or money to pay their bills;
enough medicine or medical care.
Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.
We also pray for those who have more than enough,
but who still struggle to find meaning and purpose in life;
who indulge in dangerous or self-serving activities
to dull their pain or loneliness.
Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.
God, Your grace reaches out to all of us.
You call us to live as citizens of heaven,
working together with one heart and mind.
Strengthen us to live in a manner worthy
of the Good News we have received,
offering our lives in service of Your kingdom,
where the last are first, and the first are last,
and there is grace enough for all.
Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.
In the name of Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord, Amen.