Sunday, September 09, 2012

O Lord, open thou our lips (J. Barry Vaughn, Sept. 9, 2012)

(Note: I borrowed several of my ideas from Peter Marty's sermon, "It's time we open up.")

All of us have a phobia. You know what a phobia is. It’s the Greek word for “fear.” Psychologists have borrowed that Greek word to mean an irrational fear, such as a fear of spiders. Most spiders are completely harmless, but some of us look at those little multi-legged, dark, hairy critters and just turn to jelly inside. Unfortunately, living alone as I do, I have to kill spiders myself. There’s just no one else to do it.


I am told that more people fear public speaking than anything else. There are people who would rather take on a whole army of spiders than stand up in front of a bunch of people and talk.


I suppose I was afraid of doing this at one time. In fact, I know I was. I remember my first attempts at public speaking. I don’t think I was very good at it, but I kept at it. We had a very good debate coach in high school, and after I participated in a few debate tournaments, I became more comfortable, and … well, here I am talking to you!


A few years ago, the Academy award-winning film, The King’s Speech, explored the dilemma of Britain’s King George VI who was crippled by a stammer but who needed to speak publicly to give his people hope and encouragement in the second world war.


In the climactic scene of The King’s Speech, the king and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue, are preparing for the king’s coronation in Westminster Abbey. The king is terrified at the prospect of having to take the oath of coronation. Logue sits on the enormous throne placed squarely in the middle of the abbey’s chancel. The king explodes in anger, telling Logue to get off the throne, that only monarchs may sit there. Logue goads him further and says, “Why can’t I sit here? You don’t want the job.” “You can’t sit there because I am the king. I have a voice!” the king shouts. And quietly Logue replies, “Yes, you do.”


It’s not all that different from what Jesus does with the man afflicted with a speech impediment in today’s gospel reading. Like Lionel Logue, Jesus’ techniques are unorthodox. He takes the man aside; he sticks his fingers in his ears; he spits and touches the man’s tongue. Finally, Jesus looks up to heaven and utters a single Aramaic word like a magic incantation, “Ephatha!” (Be opened.) And the man speaks.


It’s a fascinating story and makes me wonder if the man’s speech impediment was a physical problem or a spiritual problem.


Jesus found spiritual illnesses more difficult to heal than physical illnesses. Do you remember the story of the paralytic whose friends brought him to Jesus? When Jesus sees the man, he realizes that his greatest need is to have the burden of sin lifted from his spirit, so he first says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” But the bystanders are shocked. “Who does this man think he is? Only God can forgive sins.” So Jesus says, “Which is easier – to forgive sins or to say ‘take up your bed and walk’?” So to convince them that he has the power to forgive sins, he also heals the man of his physical illness.


So perhaps the elaborate ritual of putting his fingers in the man’s ears, spitting, touching the man’s tongue, looking up to heaven, and saying a mysterious word, are because Jesus knew he was dealing with a problem that was more spiritual than physical.


All of are blocked spiritually. All of us need to hear Jesus say, “Ephatha… be opened.” All of us need God’s power to unbind us from the various spiritual knots in our lives.


What is holding us back from telling others about the power of God in our lives? Are our tongues tied when it comes to telling people about God? Do we have a speech impediment when it comes to inviting people to church? Do we have a phobia of telling others that we know a God who heals and frees people from the things that bind them? How many of us would stutter and stammer if people asked us if we believe in a God with the power to save?


We need Jesus to free us and open us up. We need to feel a little of the surprise and maybe even alarm that the man did when Jesus stuck his fingers in his ears and spit and touched his tongue.


Now, I know that part of the problems is that we are Episcopalians. All this talk of sharing our faith with others and inviting people to church, much less spitting in public, makes us extremely nervous. But we need to learn how to share our faith with others.


One alarming study of church members showed that 90% of teenagers whose families attended church could not tell if their parents believed in anything.*


We have a speech impediment when it comes to faith. It’s strange because we are so quick to tell people what we believe about other things. We quite freely tell strangers about the political candidate we support. And God knows, we tell people which football team we cheer for. It’s plastered all over our cars and our t shirts.


So why don’t we tell people about the difference that Jesus has made in our lives? Ephatha, be opened, be set free.


When the German Reformer Martin Luther put together a baptismal liturgy in the early 16th century, he required the pastor to take some of his own saliva and touch the ears and lips of the child being baptized. And at the same moment, he was to say to the child being baptized, “Ephatha. Be opened.”*


Now, don’t worry. I’m not going to do that in baptisms here. Bishop Sloan is an easy going guy, but I’m pretty sure I’d get a call from him if I started doing that.


But it’s not a bad idea. From the very beginning of our Christian life, we need to be told to open up, to let go, to stop being tongue-tied about what we believe and whom we believe in.


I was a little surprised that the movie The King’s Speech did not include the Christmas broadcast that George VI made in 1939. Only a few months after Nazi Germany had invaded Poland and World War II had begun, at one of the darkest moments in Western history, George VI conquered his fear and his stammer and said to his people and to the people of the world, “I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’

And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.’

May that Almighty Hand guide and uphold us all.”


And so it will. There is an almighty hand that unbinds us, that touches our tongues and frees us to speak of God’s love, that gives us the power to to love more freely, to support the weak, to strengthen the faint-hearted. And to keep looking for ways to open our lives to the power of the Holy Spirit.


As the psalm says, “O Lord, open thou my lips, and my tongue shall declare your praise.”



* Borrowed from Peter Marty’s sermon, “It’s time we open up.”