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“Open Up!”

September 10, 2018

“‘Open Up’” Mark 7:24-37 © 9.9.18 Ordinary 23B PC(USA) Christian Education Celebration Sunday by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Today is Christian Education Celebration Sunday across the PC(USA). I couldn’t find a theme for the day or even a specific website, despite going to the link listed on the official planning calendar. So it’s a happy coincidence the lectionary gospel this morning provides a wonderful word for our reflection. “Ephphatha!” Jesus commanded. The church remembered and preserved what Jesus actually said, in his own language, Aramaic, but translated it into the common tongue of the Mediterranean region, Greek. It’s quite a mouthful in that language, but in English it’s simply “be opened” or “open up”!

On the surface, the story is a typical healing miracle of the sort we might find elsewhere in Mark or the other gospels and Acts or even in other ancient literature. It has all the traditional elements: someone asks Jesus to heal him or her, then our Lord gives a command which brings about an immediate cure. Jesus asks folks not to speak about it, but the more he asks, the more they spread the word. There is one unusual element in today’s account, namely, that the mechanics of the healing are described. Jesus spits. He touches the man’s tongue and puts his fingers in his ears. And as we’ve noticed, the actual Aramaic verb was kept. Someone once called it a “power word,” whatever that means.

But more than such details, the striking aspect of the miracle is its location. It took place outside Judea and Galilee, specifically in a region called the Decapolis, the Ten Cities. These communities, as many as 18 despite the name, had come together in an urban league for mutual defense and for trade. They were heavily influenced by Greek culture and thought. So, Gentile territory. Before that, our Lord had been in the region of Tyre and Sidon, and had healed the daughter of a Gentile woman. The next miracle recorded by Mark also is for Gentiles, namely, the feeding of the 4000.

We might say “big deal,” and wonder “so what”? But in those days Gentiles were called “dogs” by Jews. Jesus himself did it in the story of the Syrophoenician woman we heard. “It’s not fair,” he said, “to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Remember that dogs and pigs were the most unclean of animals. So these pagans were filthy, not to be associated with if one wanted to stay both ritually and physically clean. A Jew couldn’t use the same cup as a Gentile, even if it had been washed. He couldn’t enter a Gentile home and have a meal.

Maybe the closest parallel from the experience of some of us would be race relations in the South in the 1960s. I have vivid memories of the water fountains in the J.C. Penny store in Albany, GA marked “white” and “colored.” Blacks and whites didn’t eat together, go to school together or worship together. If you did, and you were white, you were labeled with a term I can’t repeat here, but we remember or can imagine.

In much the same way, Jesus ran the risk of disapproval by his countrymen and even violence against him by associating with Gentiles, who by the way, didn’t care for Jews anymore than Jews liked them. The purity of our Lord’s religion and the credibility of his message might be called into question. He would have been branded a “dog lover,” with a quite different meaning than those words have today. His very life was on the line because he was so free and open in his relationships.

Our Lord, however, seems not to be too concerned even about the possibility of being killed for his radical ministry. He was interested in connecting, rather than closing off; building relationships instead of walls; affirming the commonality of human beings instead of their differences of race, class, gender or creed. He wouldn’t back down from his commitment to bring in the realm of God, where a hearing- and speech-impaired Gentile man is loved as much by God as any Jew. All Jesus saw was someone in need.

So when Jesus told the deaf man to open up, when he put his fingers in his ears, when he touched the man’s tongue, it was an acted parable of the way our Lord lived. His ears were open to the cries of others and to the voice of God. His mouth spoke clearly of the love of God for everyone. In Jesus of Nazareth, the open one par excellence, God revealed himself as ready to receive us, even when we treat him with ridicule and scorn.

“Open up” was also a call to Jew and Gentile alike to forsake their prejudice and break through barriers, so that God and neighbor could enter. When that happens, the kingdom of God has come among us. Especially the prophet we know as Second Isaiah expected that when the new day of God’s grace dawned, the ears of the deaf would be unstopped (Isaiah 35:5). Isn’t that what Mark is telling us here? Jesus is the king, and he’s calling people to new life.

Openness to God and neighbor is part and parcel of such a life. The barriers come down; the way is opened to God for everyone. He’s made himself vulnerable in Christ. That’s an amazing thing for God to do! And now he calls us to open up to him, to tear down whatever sorts of obstacles to his love we’ve erected. God has taken the initiative in grace toward us; he’s fully accessible to humanity. But are we transparent, unbarred, ready to hear what he will say to us?

Openness to God isn’t forced on any of us. But we can’t expect to listen, care or change for the better unless we’ve first experienced such openness to the work of God in our lives. What a glorious thing to be able to say, with e.e. cummings: “now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened” (https://thepoetryplace.wordpress.com/2009/06/01/i-thank-you-god-for-most-this-amazing/).

When we start to open up to God, we begin as well to be open to other people. Indeed, openness to neighbor is the reverse of the coin for which openness to God is the obverse. Viewing others differently proves, validates, our openness to God.

So what does that look like? As the renowned author Barbara Brown Taylor has put it: “Jesus…dared [people] to imagine the stranger as neighbor, the child as teacher, the enemy as mirror, the deity as loving father. He helped them imagine lepers, women, and Roman centurions as exemplars of faith. He asked them to imagine that the most important person at the table was the waiter, and that the end of the line was the place to be” (https://imagejournal.org/article/a-conversation-with-barbara-brown-taylor/).

The church, especially in our divided world and nation, can and should point to and exemplify such a way of life. Believers follow their Lord in openness to God and neighbor. And Christian education, which we celebrate today, can play a major role in cultivating, nurturing such discipleship.

One of the primary purposes of Christian education, whether in the family or the VBS class, the Bible study or the book club, casual conversation or formal instruction, the confirmation class or the elder training time, is the passing on of knowledge about God, Jesus, the Bible, church history, and so on. As Alexander Pope reminded us long ago, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It makes us arrogant and closed-minded or even mean-spirited. Take for example the common practice of taking Bible verses out of context, without the slightest attention to critical understanding of their readers or their original intention. They’re lifted from the 10th century BC or the first century AD and plopped down in the 21st as if the meaning, the application were obvious. Christian education, when it’s full and proper, makes us suspicious of such tactics, and conscious of how we use them ourselves. It frees us to admit that we don’t know.

Rather than inculcating a rigid dogmatism, Christian education broadens our horizons. Modeled after our Lord’s example, education in the church enables us to open up to God and others. We’re brought into contact with new ideas that merit consideration and old ideas that need reaffirmation. We’re challenged to wrestle with the implications of faith for living in these days.

Church education does all this in at least three ways. First, it brings us into dialogue with our tradition. We judge our heritage of faith in light of today’s insights, and just as significantly, it judges us. We’re enlightened and moved by the works and examples of great thinkers and common folk alike. And, when we discover ways in which the Reformed tradition has been less than open and tolerant, when it hasn’t been faithful to our Lord’s way, we’re given the chance to examine our contemporary prejudices, our ways of being intolerant, and own them. We’re reminded in studying our past that often the Church has been the last bastion of the status quo, when change would have been more faithful to God’s gracious intention. By dialogue with our heritage, we can see where we might need to go in our time.

So, then we educate for openness first by entering into conversation with our past. But we also become more closely conformed to our Lord’s way of affirmation and welcome by learning with and from each other. Even a congregation the size of this one has considerable diversity. We have different backgrounds and viewpoints, talents and skills, careers, experiences, various needs and concerns, all of which are brought to bear in the study of the Scriptures or our response to some problem that may arise or an opportunity for mission that might come our way. Whoever we are, each of us has so much to offer and so much to learn. By being involved in Christian education in some way, we enjoy an experience of interaction and dialogue, and we give others the gift of our insights, knowledge, and questions.

Conversation with the past. Interaction with others who bring different perspectives. But perhaps most importantly, Christian education brings us into encounter with God and invites us in fresh ways to open up to him. Or to put it differently, Christian education leads us to new theological reflection. The best Christian education doesn’t tell us “Just believe. Trust those in authority over you. Don’t try to understand.” Instead, it reminds us that knowledge is integral to faith; it opens up life to us. As John Calvin said: “Faith rests not on ignorance, but on knowledge. It would be the height of absurdity to label ignorance tempered by humility ‘faith.’” Christian education helps us enrich our faith by increasing our knowledge of God, the Bible, the Church, the life and teachings of our Lord, and on and on. But with such head knowledge, it also seeks to lead us to heart knowledge of the Holy, to an intimate encounter with mystery and awe in God’s presence.

Sometimes I think theology becomes a sort of prejudice. Not about people. About God. God is an old dog who won’t and can’t do any new tricks. He’s an old shoe that feels good, a well-worn, comfortable pair of jeans. And we don’t really mind that, do we? Anything surprising from Heaven would be too unsettling for our comfortable religion, too much of a challenge to our complacency and apathy. God is put in a box to be admired, but not really obeyed or loved. God becomes an old, old habit.

Christian education at its best won’t allow us the luxury of that kind of God, because we’re always being surprised as we study the scriptures and church history. God constantly acts against expectations. As Walter Brueggemann once observed: “The Lord is not like any other god in the world, ancient or modern. The Lord will not fit conventional religious notions” (The Bible Makes Sense [Revised Edition]: 83). And when we learn that, we’ve heard good news. For we begin to realize that even the most hopeless situations are not outside the realm of God’s activity. Even the most unlikely, like you or me, are not beyond the working of God’s grace in Christ. As I said, Christian education cultivates openness to mystery. We discover that we don’t live in a closed system, but an open one, in and through which God can and does save.

"Open up!” That was Jesus’ command to a man who couldn’t hear and was unable to speak plainly. It’s his word to us today as we celebrate the educational ministry of the Church. Christian education is one important way that God touches our tongues and unstops our ears. Through it, we just may find healing and the power to answer the call to open up to God, to our neighbors, and the world around us.

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