I think it is wonderful that we have as our epistle reading the section from the Apostle James that has been displayed somewhere at St. James’s since the church was first consecrated in 1839. I promise I did not pick this reading for today. It is straight from the lectionary and simply a grace-filled coincidence that this particular reading falls on this particular day. In fact, every Episcopal Church around the country is reading the exact same passages this morning, they are all hearing James’s call to be doers of the word and not hearers only.
But what makes this lesson even more interesting is the gospel it is paired with. Jesus heals a deaf man with a little spit and the word Ephphatha – be opened. Our Lord in his compassion gives a man back his ability to hear and his ability to speak clearly. How nicely these readings fit together. Perhaps we are being reminded that while we have always known that we have to be doers of the word, we must never forget that we must also be hearers and speakers of God’s word – because if we cannot hear Christ then we cannot follow Christ.
There is a wonderful old tale told by the Dutch philosopher Kierkegaard about a circus that came to visit one summer in Copenhagen . All of the townsfolk were excited to see the wagons full of exotic animals, daredevils, performers, and clowns, all made up in their costumes, and parading down the main street of town. As the crowds filled the spaces under the big tent that evening, all of the performers went about putting on their makeup and getting ready for that night’s entertainment. Through some stroke of bad luck, a fire broke out in one of the tents, and one of the clowns was the only person who noticed what was happening. In an effort to warn the people who were waiting for the show to begin, he ran through the big tent yelling “fire, fire”. He was fully dressed in his clown outfit with a brightly painted face, a large orange wig, a big red nose, and long floppy black shoes. He ran around the tent several times screaming “fire, fire, the circus is on fire”. But the people only stopped and looked at him and laughed. The harder he tried to warn them and the more he screamed for people to listen, for people to get up and get out, the more people laughed. They just could not get beyond his funny appearance to really listen to what he had to say. They thought he was part of the show – they could not hear the meaning behind his words, and so they could not act on those words. A clown is a clown they thought. Clowns are always funny and no one takes them seriously.
Do we hear Christ any better than the circus goers heard the message of the clown? Do our preconceived notions of who Jesus is block us from hearing the real Christ who transcends all of our assumptions and all of our stereotypes? After all, two thousand years stand between us and this Jesus person who stuck his fingers in the ears of a man and healed his deafness. His words to us come down over the centuries layered in the traditions of an institution. Jesus did not speak English, he didn’t speak Latin, and he probably didn’t even speak Greek. His language was Aramaic and today’s gospel is one of the few times when the scriptures give us one of Christ’s original words – Ephphatha, Jesus said – be opened.
The truth of the matter is you and I cannot be doers of the word until we are truly open to hear Christ’s words. The world and our assumptions about this man Jesus fill our ears like so much cotton, muffling his word to us, blocking us from real understanding. Some of us perceive Jesus to be nothing more than God’s greatest prophet. He lived he died, he taught many things, but his words need not have any direct claim on our lives, they are just the words of a man, a great man but a man none the less. Some of us see Jesus as the meek and mild paschal lamb who never raised his voice, who never spoke a harsh word. Consequently, we have a hard time imagining our Savior ever challenging us in ways that make us uncomfortable; we have a hard time imagining Jesus’ message to us as one that pushes us from old ways of living into new. Some of us see Jesus as the great judge who sits on the right hand of God ready to return to earth in order to punish us for our sins, to separate the sheep from the goats. He is our savior, but he is also our judge and as a result his word to us is always about our failings, our shortcomings and our need to repent. Who is the Jesus that you imagine this morning – great prophet, paschal victim, all powerful judge, or something else entirely?
As far as I am concerned, Jesus’ entire ministry was about bringing people to wholeness – whether in his teachings or in his miracles or as a consequence of his sacrifice on the cross – our Lord sought always to open that which was closed, to free up that which was tied down. As imitators of Christ, as doers of the word, this is now our ministry.
James tells us that we must be doers of the word, however before we can do anything whether as a community of the faithful or in the ministry of our private lives we first have to pay attention to the God who calls to us. Our worship has a rhythm and a fluency that can fool us into thinking that we have heard it all before, that we know all we need to know about Jesus and his teachings. Sure he spoke to his disciples long ago he doesn’t speak to us today. But that isn’t the case. Maybe we need a little holy spit in our own ears to clear out our blockages, to heal us of our false expectations and our preconceived notions? Christ is calling to us, of that I am sure. He is saying – Ephphatha – be opened St. James’s. Be opened to the power of Christ leading you into wholeness. Be opened to the love of Christ calling you into a deeper relationship with God and one another. Be opened to the possibility that your brother or sister in Christ with whom you disagree maybe trying to listen and respond to God’s word just as sincerely as you are. Be opened to the work of the Holy Spirit leading you to put your faith into action in ways you may never have imagined. And at this beginning of another program year, be opened to the bountiful opportunities made available to you for new learning and new service in your community. Ephphatha – be opened.
 Dan Matthews, adapted from Soren Kierkegaard.