by Cuttino Alexander
Then Jesus returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. Jesus took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." And immediately the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak."
Let’s share some call stories, shall we? You aren’t tired of that yet, right? Let’s talk about this guy, John Chrysostom—the Man with the Golden Tongue. He lived about 350 years after Christ. A student, a monk, ascetic, preacher, a priest in Antioch and finally bishop in Constantinople—John was renowned for his use of words. And his sermons and other writings have been studied and admired for almost 16 centuries.
But what made him tick? What made him so good at what he did? Now here’s a guy who’s very name would suggest a really dramatic call story. Some juicy, spectacular theophany: John meets the Lord God Almighty face-to-face—swept up in a mystical vision, John’s golden tongue is forged with hot coals by six-winged seraphs. You know, something like that.
But, you may be disappointed (or relieved) to learn that there is no such moment in his life, at least any that I could find. John seems to be one of those people who is—and has always been—good at everything he does. I think you know the type.He’s a guy with the Midas touch.
John’s career followed a logical progression: climbing the ladder, gathering experience, letting his life be shaped by his devotion and committing himself to a high standard of excellence. And ultimately, John found himself in a place where his words could sing. There in Constantinople, in one of the most glorious cathedrals ever built, there in the pulpit stands John Chrysostom, witnessing, proclaiming to the world, the glories of God. And that is exactly where he should be.
At first glance, we can’t really say the same for our poor friend in Mark’s gospel. Here’s a guy who seems to have gotten a raw deal—no hearing, a stutter. You can probably imagine it: From an early age, the adults shrugged their shoulders and scratched their heads. His parents maybe took him to some therapists, tried to get some extra help in classes, but nothing seemed to stick. On the playground, the other kids probably made fun of him, called him names, mocked him. He couldn’t hear the jokes and the snickering behind his back, but he could certainly feel it. And over time, this anxiety and sense of inferiority built up inside him, to the point where even he underestimates himself and his neighbors simply forgot about him.
So it seems that this man from Sidon is no Chrysostom. And yet…and yet someone saw something in him. Maybe it was his family or friends or neighbors, I don’t know. Perhaps they just wanted to communicate with him, or they were tired of all the ridicule, or maybe, just maybe, someone in the village of Sidon could see within his man the glimmer of something beautiful and pure and golden. And when they heard about this great healer coming through town, this holy wanderer from Nazareth, they knew just where to go.
So the deaf man stands before Jesus. Now those of you who were looking for something dramatic will be disappointed. Those looking for fiery revelations or rebukes of the Devil will be disappointed. And you may be disappointed (or a little relieved) to learn that no pigs were harmed in this healing. Because Jesus takes him quietly aside.
It’s only with some saliva, and a touch, and a whisper, ephphatha, be opened.
And then, something astounding happened. Jesus released this man from years of struggle and pain and ridicule. Jesus gave this man the courage to speak, to let his words sing. And no matter what anyone said or did, the man of Sidon would not stop proclaiming, he did not stop preaching, he could not stop praising—not even Jesus himself could keep him quiet. That glimmer of gold inside him began to shimmer with a brilliant light. There in the dusty streets of a humble village in a forgotten corner of a brutal empire stands a restored man, witnessing, proclaiming to the world the glories of God. Exactly where he should be.
I imagine that most of us here, myself included, fancy ourselves to be the next John Chrysostom. It’s pretty easy to picture ourselves in lofty pulpits, with the golden domes of our churches gleaming, the incense billowing, the trumpets blaring, the vestments astonishing……I’m sorry, I’m getting carried away. My point is, here in this place, in seminary, we can be so fixated in forging our own golden tongues, we concentrate so much on climbing the ladder and gaining experience and holding ourselves to an impossible golden standard, and while all of this is very important, it can become very easy to forget the skills and talents and treasures of those people around us.
But if this story and this commemoration day teaches us anything, it’s that God has loving placed something golden inside every single human being—every single person on this Earth.
For some of us, like John the Golden Tongue, it’s readily apparent. Some of us are blessed with that Midas touch. But for others, we see only a glimmer. It may be buried under layers of pain or insecurity or doubt or suffering or physical constraints or simple unknowing. But it’s there.
You see, we Lutherans are often fond of talking about this concept of vocation—how both clergy and lay people serve God’s mission in the world and live it out in our daily lives. And we pose a challenging question: Where do our skills and talents and passions meet with the deep and fearful needs of our neighbors?
We don’t have a world full of Golden Tongues. But that’s a good thing, because the good news of what God has done is proclaimed in more than just words from a pulpit. And service to others comes from more people than who wear astonishing vestments.
As leaders and teachers of the church it falls to us to help others to embrace their vocations, to help people answer this difficult question in a novel way, to discover what is uniquely golden inside of them. This is especially for those people who are underestimated and those who are forgotten. What if we took people aside and with an encouraging word and a gentle whisper to say: “Ephphatha. Be open.”
You know, the truth is that once God has touched us, once God has opened us, there’s nothing to stop us from proclaiming what’s happened. Nothing to stop us from preaching. Isaiah reminds us today, the time is surely coming when the eyes of all people will be opened, and the ears of all people will be unstopped, and all of us will leap like deer and each and every one of us will sing for joy. And that time is now.
The good news of what God has done is told not just from right here, but from the pipes of that organ and on the blackboards around us; it echoes beyond these walls of this seminary and into the streets. And all the people who work in the office towers and all who work below will hear it. And the people who live in the suburbs and work in the fields and farms beyond that will proclaim it. Because God has opened us, and that gold shines within us, no one can stop us from preaching.
Are you open to this? Are we open to this mission?
I think so. Because, like the man in Sidon and like John Chrysostom, we are exactly where we should be. In this little school on the corner of 55th Street and University in the city of Chicago, we stand to witness, to proclaim to the world the glories of God. And we just can’t stop praising.