Septemeber 10, 2000
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Mark 7:24-37     From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 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." 28 But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." 29 Then he said to her, "For saying that, you may go -- the demon has left your daughter." 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

    31 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. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha {ef-fath-ah’}," that is, "Be opened." 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak." (NRSV)


Isaiah 35:1-10

            1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,

                        the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

            like the crocus

2 it shall blossom abundantly,

                        and rejoice with joy and singing.

            The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,

                        the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.

            They shall see the glory of the LORD,

                        the majesty of our God.

            3 Strengthen the weak hands,

                        and make firm the feeble knees.

            4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

                        "Be strong, do not fear!

            Here is your God.

                        He will come with vengeance,

            with terrible recompense.

                        He will come and save you."

            5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,

                        and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

            6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,

                        and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

            For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,

                        and streams in the desert;

            7 the burning sand shall become a pool,

                        and the thirsty ground springs of water;

            the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,

                        the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

            8 A highway shall be there,

                        and it shall be called the Holy Way;

            the unclean shall not travel on it,

                        but it shall be for God's people;

                        no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.

            9 No lion shall be there,

                        nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;

            they shall not be found there,

                        but the redeemed shall walk there.

            10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return,

                        and come to Zion with singing;

            everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;

                        they shall obtain joy and gladness,

                        and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (NRSV)

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Sermon: Be Opened!


This morning I’d like to begin the sermon time with a little exercise – not physical, but a mental one, a perceptual one.  I’d like us all to sit relatively quiet and close our eyes for about a half a minute to experience and consider what we would know about the world around us if we did not possess a sense of sight.  What would we know just by sound, touch, smell, and taste?  Then I’ll count down the last five seconds to the moment when we all open our eyes, and ask you to draw upon all your creative skills and imagine what it would feel like if you were opening your eyes for the very first time.  I know this is something of a stretch, but let’s just go ahead and do it.  Ready – eyes closed.


My eyes are closed too, so I can’t monitor your compliance. 


5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Eyes open.


As I said, that exercise is a bit of a stretch, but if you were able to get into the spirit of it, you might have sympathy for the deaf man and his friends in the gospel lesson this morning.  Jesus opens the man’s ears and frees up his tongue, and the wonder of it all renders them incapable of keeping it a secret as the Lord requested.


That is such an odd story in its primitive, almost magical quality.  Most of the healings in the gospel happen simply at Jesus’ command, even from a distance, as with the first part of the reading, the healing of the son of the Syrophoenician woman.  But this is an up close miracle, a touching, tactile, physical miracle.  Here Jesus puts his fingers in the deaf man’s ears and then spits, touches the man’s tongue and utters an Aramaic expression: "Ephphatha {ef-fath-ah'}," that is, "Be opened."


It may be a primitive story, but I think it teaches subtle truth.  The lesson the reader is intended to draw from this story is at least two-fold.  One is that Jesus is the individual spoken of by prophets like Isaiah who will open the eyes of the blind and unstop the ears of the deaf.  Jesus is the one who will bring redemption and salvation to God’s people.  That is one point of the story.


A second teaching, and it is this point that I am going to try and draw out in the sermon – a second lesson is that redemption and salvation in great measure consist of each of us giving ourselves to the healing touch of Christ and hearing the command “Ephphatha {ef-fath-ah'}," that is, "Be opened” and then experiencing our lives open up in ways that are as profound as the eyes of the blind suddenly seeing and the ears of the deaf suddenly hearing.


Our ability to perceive, to see, to touch, to taste, to smell, just on the purely physical level, is miraculous.  We don’t experience it as a miracle because we’ve grown accustomed to it.  But imagine that you really had opened your eyes for the first time today.  Imagine that you had awakened to a world of colors, hues, contrast, shapes and images that had always been outside your range of perception.  You might have had an exquisite ability to hear, a well developed sense of smell and touch - but, nonetheless, I’m sure the visual world would appear to you as a wonder and you would be in awe of the beauty that now emerged before your eyes.  Being able to perceive the energy of light would change your view of the world and your view of yourself.


The world in which we live has a lot of organized energy in it.  We are open and perceptive of certain types of energy and completely cut off from others.  For example, if I had a radio up here with me and turned it on, I would suddenly realize that this room is full of radio waves with all kinds of information, music, opinion, and advertising flying around just waiting for me to hear it.  But without a radio to extend my capacities of perception, I’m completely cut off from all that. 


I think I may have a filling back here that once in a while picks up 1010 WINS because I keep hearing, “You give us 30 seconds, we’ll give you the world!”


The fact is that we don’t pick up on a lot of physical energy that is around us, and the same is true, or truer, of emotional and psychological energy as well.  Both within us and without, this room is full of that kind of energy - of people’s memories, their hopes and fears, their joys and disappointments, their good intentions and evil temptations, their calm strength and their nervous anxieties.  How open are we to all these?  How well developed is our sixth sense of perception that allows us to understand the things of the heart and soul?


I don’t know if any of you have had a similar experience, but I once made a serious error in judgment because of a lack of this sixth sense in evaluating how much to trust another person.  I interviewed for a job and was offered the position.  It meant a relocation to another state and quite a bit of change in our lives.  My wife did not go with me on the interviews, but after I began the job there was a reception to welcome all the new people on staff and we both went.  She met my new boss, who was a minister and offered a prayer before we had dinner.  No sooner had he said “Amen” than she leaned over and said, “That’s your boss?  And he’s a minister?”  I looked at her and I could see she had a foreboding of future trouble written all over her face.  And no truer foreboding was ever foreboded.  And all we can say about that is “all’s well that ends well.”  But it was hell getting to the part that ended well, and all because I lacked some basic capacity to perceive one man’s emotional reality.


There is an emotional energy in the world that is the source of our greatest joy and also our greatest pain.  And just like the physical energy of light and sound, our ability to perceive and understand this energy affects our lives for good or for ill.


We all know this; we all experience this.  But this thought must be taken one step further.  For religion teaches us that underlying and surrounding and infusing this world of physical and emotional energy is an even more subtle and imperceptible spiritual energy we call holiness or divinity or the Spirit of God.


This energy is the source and the ordering purpose which has taken the universe from nothing and moved it towards life, which has taken the human soul from darkness and moved it towards light, which speaks to us through prophet and poet, through hopes of the heart and visions of the soul.  And we respond to it in prayer and praise, in a conscience calling us to greater good, in love that is sacrificial and testifies to a reality far greater than survival of the fittest or even survival of the self.


Religion, or at least our religion, further teaches us that this subtle and imperceptible spiritual energy became focused, tangible and visible in the life of Jesus Christ.  And that when we open ourselves to the presence of the holy and eternal in the specific person of Christ we also open new means of perception so that the presence of God, the grace of God, is never completely out of mind no matter what difficulties or disappointments may dull our hearing or darken our sight.


That, I think, is the good news of the Gospel story we read this morning and the deeper meaning of the command "Ephphatha {ef-fath-ah’}," that is, "Be opened."


As would be true with someone who had never been able to see or hear and now had their eyes or ears opened, so this spiritual openness transforms our view of the world and our sense of self.  We come to a different understanding of what the events of our lives mean, what strength we bring to them, and what lessons to draw from them.


At the beginning of the sermon we all did an exercise that was a brief attempt to heighten our awareness of our sense of sight.  In some ways our entire hour of worship is an exercise to heighten our awareness of our sense of God.  There is an incredible variety of ways that people do this – within a 20 minute drive of us right now you could find a half dozen Baptist churches with thumping gospel music and people shouting and swaying and getting caught up in the spirit.  Or you could find an Orthodox Church with priests in glorious robes before beautifully painted icons wafting incense over the congregation to fully involve their sense of smell in the perception of God.  In the Roman Catholic churches people are standing in line to receive the body of Christ, and in the Quaker meeting they are sitting silently waiting for the quickening spirit to move a member to share and witness.  It is all so different yet all directed towards the same goal, to be open to the presence of God.


In this place we are in a tradition that puts great emphasis on hearing the word of God preached.  We do not look to extraordinary rituals or exaggerated emotions, but to the humble presence of the holy in the ordinary acts of speaking and hearing and sharing.  We have this hour set aside to open ourselves to God, but we know that the real exercise of faith comes in the many decisions we make each day – decisions not only about opening ourselves to God, but also about opening to our neighbors in their need.


It is a patient discernment of the holy in the guise of the ordinary that is the challenge of our tradition of worship and spiritual life.  As expressed in the words of an old hymn:


I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,

No sudden rending of the veil of clay,

No angel visitant, no opening skies,

But take the dimness of my soul away.


May the same God who in Christ opened the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf, who made the lame leap and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy, now be present to us with healing and power so that we too might hear the word "Ephphatha {ef-fath-ah’}" that is, "Be opened."

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