17 September 2017, 13:11
© Stacey Steck
As you leave here today, do not, under any circumstances, no way, no how, not ever, in a million years, under pain of death or threat of torture, never, and I mean never ever, tell anyone — not man, woman, child, dog, or stone — what has happened here today. Did I make myself clear? No matter what you experience today, no matter how miraculous, no matter how moving, you must tell no one about it. And on top of that, you can’t speak about it to anyone. And no pantomime either, no Pictionary, no charades, nada. It’s like it didn’t happen, got it? Good.
Now that I have simultaneously bound you to silence and instilled in you a burning desire to tell everyone you know about this secret you are supposed to keep, we can have a look at these two little stories in Mark, one about a woman whose words are so powerful that she causes Jesus, the Son of God, to back down and change his mind, and the other about a man who has no words at all, yet becomes a babbling brook and does what none of you are going to do when he tells everybody what happened. In these stories, Jesus is taking a little tour through some Gentile lands, trying to find some down time in his ever busy schedule. He is not as successful as he would like to be and finds himself on the losing end of a verbal sparring match with a persistent woman in search of relief for her demon-possessed child. After admitting that she has a good point, and healing her daughter, Jesus finds himself faced with someone who does not have the same ability to convince the Son of Man of the worthiness of his cause, a man who cannot hear and who has a speech impediment. Jesus has mercy on him, takes him aside, does some razzle dazzle, and, as it says, “immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” All the people are amazed and disobey Jesus’ command to remain silent, as I’m sure none of you will do, and Jesus’ fame grows.
Before we continue with this story, let me just say a few words about this command of silence. The passages in Mark in which Jesus tells people not to repeat what they have observed are often referred to as the so-called Messianic Secret. Jesus seems to be asking people to keep his Messiahhood from becoming too well known. Dedicated Biblical scholars over the centuries, not being able to find out exactly what either the Evangelist or Jesus had in mind, have advanced any number of theories about what this secret-keeping is all about. For those of you who would like to know the intricacies of these theories, I can refer you to any number of books or articles on the subject, but the shorthand for this morning’s episode of the Messianic secret is that it beautifully sets up the ever increasing crowds which play a role in upcoming stories in Mark, especially the very next one in which four thousand people are fed with the meager provisions of seven loaves and a few fish. If you don’t tell them, they will come. Keep that in mind.
For this morning, I would like to make a few observations about the second story, the one in which the deaf stutterer is restored to the full use of his linguistic faculties and encounters Jesus is a life changing way. Here is a man almost completely cut off from the world around him, and literally unable to hear the news about Jesus and the healing he can bring. Remember now that this is before more enlightened social policy, before the Americans with Disabilities Act, before Helen Keller, before recognition that a malady like deafness is not punishment for sin. There was no sign language, there were no special schools, nothing but silence and frustrating attempts to speak with a crooked tongue. This man has, however, something rather rare in those days for social outcasts such as himself. He has friends, people who did not ostracize him for his disability, but who cared enough for him that when they themselves heard something about this man Jesus, they summoned their courage and did the only thing they could do for their friend, that which he could not do for himself: they used their ears and their voices and responded for him, bringing him to Jesus and, as it says, “begging him to lay his hand on him.” These friends, these unnamed heroes, through their care for their friend, introduce him to Jesus and his life is never the same.
I think there could be a lesson for us in there somewhere, a lesson which should not be overlooked in light of our upcoming “Invite a Friend” Sunday on October 1. Like the deaf man’s friends, you have heard about this Jesus guy, you have experienced what he can do in your life and in the lives of people you know and admire. And just as the deaf man was physically unable to hear the word of God and physically unable to speak, and therefore beg Jesus the way the Syrophoenecian woman did, so too are all those who are physically unable to hear the Word of God because they are not in church on Sunday morning, or any other time of the week, and unable to ask God for help because they lack the vocabulary of faith that we have so wonderfully received. Two weeks from today, you have a wonderful opportunity to do precisely what the deaf man’s friends did: bring their friend that God might open his ears and his life to the message of God’s amazing grace. Start making your list.
The goal for Invite-a-Friend Sunday is to have two hundred people worship God together in this place. The closest we’ve come in the last two years was on Homecoming when we had 185. Now if we were to reach that goal, do you know what that would mean? First, it would mean that you disobeyed your pastor’s orders to not tell anyone about what God is doing in this place. But I guess I could live with that. But more importantly, it means that you will have done your part. You won’t have left it up to somebody else, because none of us have a spare hundred friends to invite, all of whom will show up. Those four thousand people who showed up in the very next story in Mark didn’t come because one person couldn’t keep the secret, but because none of the people who witnessed what Jesus did for that deaf man could keep it, and thank God they didn’t. If this place is full it means that you will have overcome your fear and trembling about outing yourself as a Christian. It will mean that you will have to put yourself on the line for what you believe in. It will mean that you will have to exhibit some of the holy boldness and audacity that the deaf man’s friends had when they brought him to Jesus because they loved him. It means you will have to take by the hand people who will be wary of a new place and a new experience, and gently guide them to a place where they can be touched by God and have their lives opened by God. You will be offering a gift waiting to be opened by people you know and love.
The last thing I want to say about this story relates to the idea of being opened to God. When Jesus looks up to heaven, sighs, and says “Ephphatha,” “Be opened,” you cannot help but get the sense that he means more than the man’s ear canals, that he is speaking about the man’s perception of God, and what God has done for him, and what God has in store for him, now that he will be able to hear. What has opened before this stuttering deaf man is the very kingdom of God, the very point Mark is trying to make by telling this story. “They were astounded,” it says, “beyond measure,” and the people who witnessed what had happened to the man recognized that Jesus was bringing what they knew God would bring, liberation to the captives, sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, a transformation of the world. This is why, no matter how much he ordered it, the people could not keep to themselves the stories of what they had seen take place.
So here’s the dirty little secret about Invite-a-Friend Sunday. It’s not about church growth. It’s not about numbers. It’s not even all about helping other people to be opened to the experience of God. You see, mostly it’s about helping those of us who are already here to be opened to the experience of God. Inviting people to church is one of those conversations that doesn’t come as naturally as many others, but not for lack of opportunity. Mostly, we keep that secret about Jesus to ourselves because we think that to tell it runs the risk of rejection, or conflict, or an awkward moment we’d rather not have with people we have to see every day at work or school. But those are risks we must take if we want to be more and more open to the God who has opened our ears and loosened out tongues. If inviting people to church came as naturally to us as it seems to have to those who saw the miracle that day, we’d be full every week, because who can’t use more good news? So it takes being opened to God to open our mouths to invite.
And so I want to challenge you with a question I’d like you to consider over the next few weeks or even months, and that question is this: How is God opening you and how are you responding to God saying, “Be opened”? How is God opening you and how are you responding to God saying, “Be opened”? What doors is God opening in your family, in your job, in your prayer life? How is your heart being opened to greater compassion and justice? How have you responded when God has said to you “Be opened”? Have you allowed yourself to be opened and to experience the very kingdom of God? These are the questions of faith, ones that need to be asked not just once, but all the time.
As we approach Invite-a-Friend Sunday on World Communion Sunday on October 1, may we all keep that Messianic secret as poorly as those who were “astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’ ” Amen.