The following sermon was preached by Craig A. Satterlee, Axel Jacob and Gerda Maria (Swanson) Carlson Chair of Homiletics; Dean, ACTS D.Min. in Preaching Program, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Tuesday, September 8, 2009.
Isaiah 35:4-7a, James 2:1-10, Mark 7:24-37
The scriptures we will hear in worship this week seem to have been selected especially for LSTC. Isaiah talks of waters breaking forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert, and burning sand becoming a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water – God let us help you renew the face of the earth. James hints at God's preference for the poor, a theme dear to this seminary's heart. And the Syrophoenician woman makes plain how everyone, including Jesus, gets tripped up by unquestioned religious and societal oppression – a reality with which we are oh-so familiar.
With so much great stuff, it's easy to overlook the man who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech as we begin a new school year. After all, this man doesn't save the planet, serve the poor, or overcome oppression. This man who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech doesn't do much of anything – except, of course, to be taken aside in private by Jesus, away from the crowd. This man doesn't do much of anything – except, of course, to have Jesus say to him, “Ephphathat!” And his ears are opened. His tongue is released. His life is transformed.
Now there are lots of ways to think about this season of your Christian vocation, this time of seminary education. This year, I'd like you to think of yourself as that man. Jesus is taking you aside in private, away from the crowds, and saying, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” Jesus takes you aside for this season of your life so that, by the very power of Christ that opens ears and frees tongues the very power of Christ who on the cross opened for us the God's reign of love and the way to everlasting life, by that very power of Christ, you might hear God's Word clearly and speak the Gospel plainly. Yet, compared with all the other words we will hear from Scripture this week, going aside with Jesus to be opened can seem small and insignificant, especially since Jesus might use things as mundane as spittle – Hebrew and Greek, Old and New Testament, Church History and Systematic Theology, Pastoral Care and Preaching -- to open and transform us.
But we live in a church and a world where often we cannot hear above the noise of the crowd. We live in a church and a world where there are words from God we just can't hear, that we just won't hear. We live in a church and a world where tongues have become so set in what we say and how we say it that our speech becomes an impediment to proclaiming the Gospel. So there is wisdom in going aside with Jesus for a time.
When we do, Jesus says to us what Jesus said to that man. “Ephphatha! Be opened!” And while Jesus used spittle, today we use oil. While Jesus touched ears and tongue, we anoint hands. St. Ambrose suggests that to do exactly what Jesus did would be somewhat awkward. And so we do it a bit differently. And Jesus, who opens ears and loosens tongues, who brings life out of death, speech out of silence, and hope out of despair, will surely transform you. And, in the fullness of time, Jesus will transform the world through people like you, who commit yourselves to go away with Jesus, away from the crowd, and be opened by Jesus.
For Jesus doesn't only open us for ourselves. We spend this season of our Christian vocation, this time of Christian education, for each other, for the church that we love, for the congregations we will serve, for people who do not have the privilege of studying their faith, and for the world that does not know what it does not know. What we begin this week, what we do this year, is a sign of the Spirit’s presence, a way of following Christ, and a share in God’s work of reconciling the world to God’s own self. God invites us to trust, to have faith, to be open to the reality that what we are doing will make a difference.
And so, today, we anoint new students’ hands as a sign of Jesus opening them up for the work of this season of their lives and ministries. Jesus’ call in this season of life is be opened to study and preparation. During these years, the work of our hands is to open books, to turn pages, to write papers, and to manipulate keyboards. Our hands will do more praying for the world than serving in the world. We will learn to extend our hands in peace when it would be easier to distance ourselves and turn away. We wil learn to set a watch before our mouth and listen when we have so much to say. We will learn to use our hands to bless when we want to and are justified in cursing. This work is not separate from ministry. Our hands are set apart to minister to those we will one day serve by faithfully studying Scripture, diligently learning the faith, intentionally growing in spirit, and passionately practicing the arts of ministry. You see, even as Jesus takes us adie, Jesus sopens us for important work.
Having your hands anointed, deciding to come to–or to come back to–seminary is controversial. Seminary challenges our tendency to distinguish between the academic and practical, between learning the tradition and engaging in mission. In the anointing, Jesus opens our hands so that we know how empty we really are, so that Christ might fill us. God opens our hands, so that we might be free to hear and to speak in new ways. In the anointing, Jesus says, “Ephphatha! “Be opened!” Let your life be transferred – not only for yourself, but for the planet, for the poor, for the Syrophenician woman. For the time is coming, Jesus says, and will surely come, when I use your hands, your ears, your tongue, your life to transform the world.