Proper 18B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The gospel is an English translation of a Greek text written about a man who never wrote down anything but who spoke and taught in a third language called, Aramaic. We have here, in our scriptures, what they remembered, what they could not forget, about Jesus. Only a few precious untranslated words remain in his native tongue. They are sprinkled throughout Mark’s gospel like icons. Did these words evoke something particular and essential about what it was like to be with Jesus? He addressed God as “Abba,” or ‘daddy.’ He had said, “Talitha cum,” ‘little girl, get up’ to Jairus’ daughter. They remember he cried out from the cross, “Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani,” ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

We have another one of these original Aramaic word-icons of Jesus in our gospel today, “Ephatha,” ‘be opened.’ Ephatha, the gospel of Jesus opens hands, hearts, and minds to grace. Ephatha, last Sunday Jesus opened the eyes of the Pharisees to the cancer of religious legalism. Ephatha, today Jesus opened the ears and speech of a man who could not hear or speak from birth. Ephatha, sometimes this power to open and awaken even worked in the other direction—as when Jesus’ mind was opened to the radical inclusiveness of God’s kingdom by the faith of the unnamed Syrophoenician woman in our gospel today.

It is shocking, but here, we confront Jesus in his full humanity—and give thanks for this moment in which the Kingdom of Heaven broke wide open for Jesus. Personally, I am thankful for Mark’s candor. This unnamed woman became a preacher to Jesus. Jesus’ own consciousness was raised about his ministry and mission. No one is outside the embrace of God. Ephatha. We shall all be opened, changed, transformed in the image of God.

The psalmist says, “The Lord lifts up all who are bowed down” (146:8). Yet Jesus puts this woman down. She is a double outsider. She is not Jewish, and she is a woman. He essentially calls her a dog. I don’t know, maybe Jesus had a lot on his mind. Maybe he was having a bad week. Soon, he will tell the disciples, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him…” (Mark 9:31). Soon, he must say goodbye to everyone he loves in Galilee. Soon he will turn toward Jerusalem. Perhaps he wanted to focus on preparing the disciples for what was coming.

‘It is not fitting’, Jesus said, ‘to take the food that belongs to the little children, and through it to the dogs.’ Nevertheless, she persisted. She reminded him, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (verse 28). Ephatha, something in Jesus opened. Her daughter is healed.

Ephatha. We are being opened. Yet, how often is this transformation in us painfully slow? It can seem like it will never happen at all. Historically, women have been conditioned to remain silent, to be subservient to men. Even now, two thousand years later, we understand very well the expected response from this woman would have been for her to accept Jesus’ insult and turn away. But she does not. She speaks up; she stands her ground. And Jesus takes notice. What a powerful lesson for women and all those who have suffered oppression because of their gender. God does not ask us to keep silent. Instead, God lifts up those who are bowed down. Take courage, God is with you when we raise our voices in the struggle for justice. (Pearl Maria Barros, Sojourners, Santa Clara University in California)

Jesus was open to learning –and now—with his help—we pray so are we. God has no favorites. No favored people, no favored nation, no favored religion, even, but every person is beloved in the eyes of God. We who are marked with the cross of Christ are living signs of this most gracious God. Ephatha, our words and deeds must be brought into line with grace through faith.

The set of readings we have each week for worship take us through the letter of James for five weeks. Some of you remember Martin Luther called this book “an epistle of straw.” Yet I argue this short book offers timely wisdom. James provokes us to wrestle with the question “What do my words and deeds say about my faith and about me?” I invite you to read it yourself. I’m curious what you think. James doesn’t advocate for earning one’s righteousness through works as Luther thought, but instead focuses on the importance of our character in Christ. Character is our identity reflected in what we say or do. (adapted from Aaron Fuller, “Cultivate Character, Living Lutheran, September issue, 2021)

People of God the times call upon us now to open again to grace, to expand our vision, to widen our understanding, to better align our character with the God of our ancestors, the living God of grace who urges us to step forward now. This week, we are on the eve of the twentieth anniversary of 911. What have we learned? Even as he brought the war in Afghanistan to an end, President Joe Biden said, “We will not forgive, we will not forget.” in response to attacks at the Kabul airport (President Joe Biden, 8/26/21). Are we ready to turn from our trust in war and military strength, are we ready to listen to our enemies as Jesus was and to pray for them? Can we be wise as Jesus was wise to know “…forgiveness and justice aren’t mutually exclusive. They may be both/and. We can forgive someone and still hold them accountable. Isn’t that what God’s justice requires of us?” (Angela Khabeb, “Grounds for Forgiveness, Living Lutheran, September issue 2021).

I pray Jesus would take us aside and put his fingers in our ears. I pray he would spit and touch our tongue. Time is running out on the idea we can survive by making a world full of enemies. Time is running out on the belief in whiteness. Time is running out on the idea that this nation’s great wealth was not purchased on the back of slave labor and genocide of native peoples. Time is running out on the idea we can ignore mother nature. On this last one, in particular, scientists plead that we have about a decade to make a difference.

Ephatha. Be opened. Our lord Jesus opened his heart to the unnamed women by responding to her needs in words and deeds. How are we, this church, and our nation being called today to align our character to grace?

I have Richard Anderson to thank for reminding me that yesterday, September 4th, was the day of commemoration for Albert Schweitzer, pastor, theologian, musician, musicologist, philosopher, physician, educator, advocate of ‘reverence for life’, opponent of colonialism, anti-war activist, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. (There is a stained-glass window dedicated to Schweitzer in the church in the east stairway leading to the choir loft.) Albert Schweitzer was the author of famous aphorisms. I’ll read just two of them now. May they be an occasion for Ephatha, for increased openness in us.

“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”

“We must fight against the spirit of unconscious cruelty with which we treat the animals. Animals suffer as much as we do. True humanity does not allow us to impose such sufferings on them. It is our duty to make the whole world recognize it. Until we extend our circle of compassion to all living things, humanity will not find peace.”

Amen.