Mary Nixon made big news a couple of years ago. She was a 76-year old woman who was suing the University of Iowa for experiments that the university conducted back in 1939. Dubbed now "the Monster Study," Mary Nixon and a number of other orphans were subjected to intense psychological battering. For 12 consecutive months back in the 1930's, Mary endured relentless rapid-fire belittling of her personhood and her speech. This was all done for the sake of trying to induce stuttering in these human guinea pigs.
By today's standards, it was highly unethical science - this taking of minorities, orphans, or others considered to be morally inferior, and experimenting on them.
Mary Nixon has suffered lifelong psychological problems. Stutterers tend to avoid eye contact with their listeners. They have irregular breathing patterns. They're typically greatly ashamed of their stuttering. And they have great feelings of worthlessness - incredibly low self-esteem. In short, they have a hard life. No one is ever quite sure what to do with them, or whether or not to take them seriously. Throw hardness of hearing on top of the speech impediment and you have a very lonely and difficult life.
Some people brought to Jesus a man just like this. His life was anything but easy. No one knew quite what to do with him. Apparently, he hadn't heard the morning birds or the evening crickets since the day he was born. He stuttered every time he tried to say even the simplest thing.
But Jesus knew what to do with this fellow. He first took the man aside from the crowd that had brought him. Then he poked his finger right in toward the eardrum of the man. But this poking was only half of it. Jesus spit on the man's tongue and pulled his finger out of the ear long enough to massage the tongue. Then, in what must have seemed to everyone in the vicinity like primal behavior, he GRUNTED! Jesus groaned deeply. He looked up toward heaven as he spoke toward the man: Ephatha! Be Opened!
And the man could suddenly hear. His tongue became free enough to whistle. Now he could talk as plainly as all of those gawkers who had made a life out of talking about him. Every speech therapist that had worked on the guy since second grade was now speechless.
I know the saliva deal doesn't sound too cool. But evidently that's exactly what was required. And lest it offend any of us too much, let's not forget those times when mother licked her fingers and wiped all that chocolate Oreo goo from around our mouths when we were wee little ones.
Jesus looked up to heaven and he groaned deeply. He mysteriously looked up into the clouds before turning to the man and saying out loud: Ephatha! Be Opened!
When I re-read this story a few days ago, I couldn't help but think of Anne Lamott, the writer, who tells the amusing story of taking her father on errands one day. His brain cancer had progressed to the point where he was reverting to some behaviors of a three-year old. Just before Anne trotted into the local bank one day, she gave Dad a candy bar and strapped him into the passenger seat of her car. There was a huge line at the teller's window where Anne was standing. So, every so often, she would run over to peek out the bank's front window to make sure that Dad was still there … as if someone was going to kidnap him or something.
She writes: "The last time I looked, he wasn't there. The car was empty. I felt like adrenaline had been injected into my heart. I stared … out the window and saw this crazy old man pass by the window. His face was smeared with chocolate. He was just walking on by, holding his candy bar, staring up at the sky as if maybe his next operating instructions were up there."
Jesus mysteriously stared up at the sky while massaging the tongue and the ears of a distressed man. We don't know why he was looking up and surveying the clouds. Perhaps it was as if his next operating instructions were up there. Maybe he was looking for power from God, power he did not have apart from God. Maybe God actually spoke to him at that moment and concurred with him that this particular man's bondage - his mental torture - must definitely end. Maybe Jesus was looking for help to shake the crowd he could not shake. Or maybe (and this is my best guess), maybe God was reminding Jesus that he should be ready for bystanders there to get a whole lot more excited about the physical miracle than the spiritual miracle of healing. In other words, "Get ready, Jesus, for the people to be much more infatuated by the spit and the ear poke than by the change that will be wrought in this man's spirit and attitude."
When you come right down to it, spiritual miracles delight our Lord much more than physical ones. Physical miracles were always relatively easy for Jesus. Or so it seemed. He had an easier time getting a paralyzed man up on his feet and walking, for example, than he did getting the same man to believe his sins were forgiven. Spiritual miracles are the big challenge for Jesus. They're the tough ones.
… which brings me to the question: How is our Lord ever going to get all of us to "open up" our lives a bit more freely? It's going to take a huge spiritual miracle in each one of us, if we're going to shed the different spiritual captivities in which we live. But we have to begin to find better ways to live as if God matters. We need to release the ligament that's holding back our tongues from speaking more joyously of God. The world is going to ignore the church (and the people inside of it) if we cannot find anything important to say about this faith we cherish.
EPHATHA! Be Opened! We can worship as politely as we wish … and behave in all the right ways … and STILL live anemic and trivial lives if we cannot find a way to open ourselves up enough to feel a little of the panic and surprise and power that comes with believing in a Lord who uses even spit to heal! It's time we be set free of all our hang-ups. I don't know what else to call it - but this "saving" of our faith lives, and all of the talk of what we value, for one hour of church time each week, is nonsense. It's time we come alive with our faith and love in a more expressive way - every single day. A little juice. A little passion in it would all go a long way. If someone asked you why you believe this Jesus figure is really important to you, could you do more than gulp and stutter in some confusion?
Don't worry whether or not you have the "right" religious words to speak with others about the difference God makes to you. Religious talk will not change the world. You don't have to master the intricacies of theology to speak lovingly and convincingly of what God does for you in Jesus Christ.
EPHATHA! Be Opened! We simply must find ways to articulate the faith and love in Jesus Christ that we hold so dear. In my denomination, a research project revealed that 90% of teenagers active in the church could not tell you what their parent or parents believed. 90%! They didn't know! If adults cannot speak meaningfully and regularly of their faith, how will it ever get passed along?
This speech impediment we have on matters of faith is really quite peculiar. Because on most matters in this country, if you're really for something, you let people know. You put a bumper sticker on your car. You wave an American flag on the street corner when the kids come home from Iraq. You wear T-Shirts with logos. You tattoo your favorite expression on your bicep. Fifteen-year old girls wear boxer shorts bearing slogans of their school spirit.
If you're enthused about the difference that Christ Jesus makes in your life, why wouldn't you find a meaningful way to let people know … and to share at least a piece of that joy. EPHATHA! Be Opened! Be set free!
When Martin Luther put together a baptismal liturgy in 1523, the actual rite required the pastor to take some of his own saliva and touch the ears and lips of every child getting baptized. At the same instant, the pastor was to repeat the words of Jesus to the deaf man, that one with the speech impediment. The baptizing pastor was to say: Ephatha - That is, be opened. We don't do this anymore in the Lutheran Church. And I'm not sure I'd be serving my congregation very long if I started using this saliva ritual.
But the idea isn't bad. From the very get-go in life, with a lot of help from parents and pastors and adult mentors, we need to find better ways to not be so bound-up with our lives and so tongue-tied with our faith. Have courage. Grab hold to what is good. Loosen up and love a bit more freely. Support the weak. Strengthen the faint-hearted. Honor all people. And for Jesus' sake, keep looking for those ways to open your life to the power of the Holy Spirit … relying on that great prayer of the Psalmist if it helps: O Lord, open thou my lips, and let my tongue declare your praise.
Let us pray.
O Lord God, who has the gift to open up even the tightest of lives, work on us. Deliver us from that which has us all bound up that we might become truly free people ready to serve you with hearts that are wide open and willing. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.