This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka CA on September 9, 2018.
“For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.” Isaiah 35:6
“I would love to live / Like a river flows, / Carried by the surprise / Of its own unfolding.” These words of Celtic poet John O’Donohue come to mind and speak to my heart on this homecoming Sunday when we flow back (or bounce back) to church and school after summer vacations and begin together a new program year full of things that have never been.
“I would love to live / Like a river flows, / Carried by the surprise / Of its own unfolding.” These words also resonate with this morning’s Gospel, which preserves one of the few original Aramaic words of Jesus. Although I like to think that Jesus was a good Episcopalian who spoke English and read his Book of Common Prayer, he most certainly was not. He probably knew some Greek and some Hebrew and most scholars agree that he definitely spoke Aramaic. And in today’s Gospel, we get to hear the actual word that Jesus spoke after he laid his hands on the head of a deaf and mute man, looked up into heaven and sighed; and then said, “Ephphatha,” Be Opened. And immediately the man’s ears were opened, his tongue released, and he spoke plainly.
I remember reading this Gospel six years ago in San Rafael on the day we launched a collaborative youth ministry shared among five Episcopal parishes in Marin county called the Marin Episcopal Youth Group. I was nervous and anxious and I heard this one word of Jesus (“Ephphatha”) as a divine comfort and blessing and inauguration of the ministry; a commission and an invitation to be open to the flow of the ministry and to be carried by the surprise of its unfolding. The clergy of the five Episcopal parishes were all taking a risk and didn’t know quite what to expect. I had not yet been ordained and, although I had some previous experience as a youth minister in the Episcopal church, I still felt like I was kind of making things up as I was going. We all had to trust that Christ was laying his hands on us, looking up into heaven, sighing and saying, Ephphatha! Be Opened.
Over the years, the Marin Episcopal Youth Group, like all youth groups, waxed and waned, but it remained strong and consistently committed to serving Christ through prayer and outreach to the poor. And the youth taught us and surprised us with their amazing creativity, their eagerness to serve others in need and their care for the earth. Five years later, the bishop’s assistant called us the most successful collaborative youth ministry in the country. And just this last Saturday, I saw two kids from the youth group who have both doubled in height and I witnessed them both shower their older sister with love and support as she made her marriage vows at Grace cathedral in San Francisco. Like the flow of a river, that ministry carried us all by the surprise of its own unfolding. And that ministry continues today.
And so on this day, with all of you, let us begin this new program year and this new era in the life of Christ Church Eureka by imagining Jesus laying his hands on each of us individually, and on all of us communally, as he looks up into heaven, sighs and says, Ephphatha! Be Opened.
Let us be open to all the wonderful surprises that God has in store for us. Let us open our hearts and our minds to one another and be willing to have our minds changed and to have a change of heart. Let us not fear having our minds changed because, my friends, according to today’s Gospel, it is very Christ-like to have one’s mind changed.
As Jesus walks along the Jordan River, by the many streams and tributaries that flow between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean, Jesus seems to be living like a river flows, carried by the surprise of his own ministry’s unfolding. We see this clearly in his encounter with a Gentile woman. New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop Tom Wright explains that, “Though Jesus (like many Jews of the day) clearly [envisioned] a future time when Gentiles would come to share the blessings of the kingdom, he seems to be surprised that it is all happening this quickly.”
We see this surprise in Jesus after he initially rejects the Syrophoenician woman’s humble request for her daughter’s healing, which is very alarming and disturbing to us, especially since we believe Jesus is fully divine and it’s hard to imagine the incarnation of God expressing racial prejudice. It’s important for us to remember that we also believe that Jesus is fully human and that Jesus himself admits that there are some things he does not know (Matt 24:36). St. Luke describes Jesus growing in wisdom and it appears that here (in today’s Gospel) is another case in which Jesus grows in wisdom by having his mind opened and changed. A woman whom he initially dismisses and insults as an inferior animal responds with fearless audacity, unafraid to suffer further humiliation in order to bring healing to her beloved daughter. She says to Jesus, “Alright, if you’re going to call me a dog, at least recognize that even dogs get some crumbs!” And with these bold words, Jesus’s mind is opened and changed. And he sees her as a strong and courageous woman, loved by God and made in His image. And then he heals her daughter immediately.
Let us be like Jesus by be willing to have our hearts and minds opened and changed, especially when it comes to the poor and vulnerable and marginalized among us; and especially when it comes to the children among us. Last night, one of the young girls at the Foster Friday event (Na-Vai-Ya) suggested that we be more explicit about our commitment to God by changing the lyrics of one of our Foster Friday songs from “Lead with love” to “Let God lead.” Let God lead. Perfect wisdom for us today as we begin a new year and new era together. Out of the mouths of children God has called forth wisdom.
I invite us also to be courageous like the Syrophoenician woman by boldly and persistently asking God for healing and wholeness in our individual lives and in the life of this community. Let us not be afraid to think outside the box and to ask God boldly to do radical and astonishing work here at Christ Church Eureka; and then let us remain open to all that God has in store for us. Let us live like the river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.
And let us never forget that our origin, our source and our goal is always Jesus Christ (after whom our church is named), the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End; or, as we might say here due to our unique stained glass windows, which reverse the Greek letters: the Omega and the Alpha, the Goal and the Source, the Destiny and the Origin.
Finally, I want to conclude with another short poem by German Christian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, a poem that also seems to capture the spirit of that beautifully expansive word of Jesus: Ephphatha. I invite you to open yourself up to hear this poem as a prayer for yourself and for this community. The poem is called “I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.”
I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for
may for once spring clear
without my contriving.
If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.
Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
these deepening tides moving out, returning,
I will sing you as no one ever has,
streaming through widening channels
into the open sea.
 John O’Donohue, “Fluent” Conamara Blues (New York: Cliff Street Books, 2001), 23.
 Tom Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Biblical Meditations on the Christian Years A, B & C (New York: Morehouse, 2012), 233.
 Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), 65.