“Then looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed, and said to the deaf man, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’” —Mark 7:34
The Gospel lesson assigned for today begins at verse 31: “Then Jesus returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee.” This is indeed a strange itinerary, even for the wandering Aramaen who was our Lord. For those of you who are visiting with us today from out of town, this would be like planning to travel from Washington to Richmond—by way of Baltimore!
Now, the Gospel of Mark, the shortest of the four Gospels, uses an economy of words to get across the life and message of Jesus. Nothing that is contained in this Gospel is superfluous; nothing is devoid of significance for the hearer. Clearly, the writer is making a point here of theology by way of geography: Jesus deliberately took a circuitous route to get to his desired destination.
Why? To put it simply, because it was the place of the unclean.
Jesus had been there earlier at the beginning of his ministry. It was the region of the Decapolis, “The Ten Cities,” and it had the reputation of being an unsavory place filled with Gentiles, or “unbelievers.” Jesus had been run out of the region before, after having exorcised a legion of unclean spirits from a man, driving them into a herd of swine (“unclean animals” in Jewish law) that then threw themselves into the sea to be drowned, thus disrupting the local economy. You understand that at this point he became a threat to those who trafficked in the swine trade, and he had to go. But now he returned.
Today’s story is placed in the Gospel in the context of a growing controversy between Jesus and those religious authorities that believed that he flouted and disregarded the purification laws and traditions of the religious establishment. Last week, we read of the complaints lodged against Jesus’ disciples who ate with defiled hands. They did not wash their hands before eating every meal—nor, we assume, did they always purify their cups, pots, and kettles according to the practices of the Jewish tradition of the day.
Now, if you’re thinking that this controversy is about washing your hands before dinner so that you don’t receive or pass on germs, know that it is not about that good habit. The washing of hands and pots from the standpoint of the religious authorities in Jesus’ day was not essentially about good hygiene. It had everything to do with what is symbolically unclean, with the symbolic removal of impurity. It had everything to do with what unclean hands symbolize, what they represent—not whether or not they are actually clean.
Jesus’ point was that true defilement comes from the human heart, not from exterior things. Unclean hands are not evil; they may be unclean, hygienically speaking, but they are not morally offensive to God. Moreover, Jesus challenged those arcane religious purity rules, arguing that they originated not from the Law of Moses but from the “tradition of the elders,” the kind of unwritten, arbitrary rules of religious etiquette that they wanted to impose not only on themselves, but on everyone else as well.
Jesus demonstrates his point in the healing of a deaf mute man. He had been asked to lay his hands of the man, the laying on of hands being the symbol of the conferring of the Holy Spirit and healing. But Jesus goes further than the mere laying on of hands: he takes his fingers and sticks them in the man’s ear, then he spits and touches the man’s tongue.
Now, I’m not an expert on Jewish purification laws, but at these, shall we say “unorthodox,” healing methods of Jesus, I can say, “Yuck!” After touching the man’s tongue in this shocking way, Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Ephphatha,” meaning be released, or “Be opened!” Immediately the man’s ears were opened, and his tongue released, so that he could speak plainly. So, in summary, our Lord went out of his way to go to an unclean land, lay his hands on an unclean man, and use unclean methods to heal him. In so doing he drove home the point that nothing unclean—and, more important, no person deemed to be unclean, is outside the reach of God’s redemptive touch.
So, the question before us today is, “Who are the unclean among us?” Earlier this year when he was consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams said in his sermon, “No one can be written off; no group, no nation, no minority. We can’t assume that any human face we see has no divine secret to disclose: those who are culturally or religiously strange to us; those who so often don’t count in the world’s terms—the old, the unborn, the disabled… We have to learn to be human alongside all sorts of others, the ones whose company we don’t greatly like, the ones we didn’t choose, because Jesus is drawing us together into his place, into his company.”
Who are the unclean today? They are the outcast, the scorned, the marginalized — those assigned to the “margins” of society by the majority culture who are “majority” not necessarily because of numerical superiority but because of their power in the society. The unclean have been assigned such status because they are different from the majority power: they are the wrong gender, the wrong nationality, the wrong religion, the wrong color, the wrong sexual orientation, the wrong social class, the wrong body shape, the wrong political philosophy or party, or the wrong “whatever” it is that makes them unacceptable to those who declare themselves “clean.” The Gospel lesson today highlights one of the classically marginalized groups in any society: those with physical abnormalities and disabilities.
In March of last year, we began our newly expanded pilgrimage program at the Cathedral. We’ve identified several “pilgrimage days” or evenings in the course of the year in which we invite individuals or groups to come and experience the Cathedral not only as a place of magnificent beauty and majesty, but also as holy ground — a place of deep spirituality that helps people to connect with God in their life’s journey.
The first pilgrimage group was from Alaska. Why did they come all the way here? In fulfillment of the Gospel lesson, they were probably on their way to Canada by way of Washington, DC. As first I looked at that small group of about twelve pilgrims, my immediate thought was that we were in trouble! You see, we designed the pilgrimages with walking in mind — walking through the Olmstead Woods, walking up the hill on the pilgrim’s path, walking up the 50 steep steps leading from the Pilgrim Road to the South Road next to the Cathedral, then walking through several of the sacred sites throughout the building. The problem that day, however, was that one of the pilgrims needed a cane to get around, and another was in a wheelchair.
When I gave the instructions for the pilgrimage, I repeated at least three times that not everybody needed to do the walks, and that those who wished could stay behind and wait for the rest of the group to return for the contemplative prayer times in the Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. But that group had already decided: no one would be left behind on that pilgrimage.
And so we started out. It took more time than we had scheduled to get down to the base of Pilgrim Road, given the slow pace to get everyone there, but no one seemed to mind. At the starting gate we linked up with the woman in the wheelchair, since someone had driven her and her wheelchair there to meet us. We were on our way!
It must have been quite a sight: we were young and old, black, white and native, able bodied and differently abled, walking with canes, wheelchair and processional cross, ambling through the Cathedral grounds as best we could, going to a holy place together. I’ll never forget approaching the Pilgrim Steps, wondering how in the world would we make it, given that ragtag group of pilgrims. But carrying the cross and leading the procession, I started up those stairs, not daring to look back until I reached the top to get a visual casualty report. What I saw instead was the woman in the wheelchair being lifted up, one step at a time, by the lone teenager in the group and one of the elderly men. At each step they would say the scripture verse that we all were meditating on during the pilgrimage walk (a version of the first verse of Psalm 23): “The Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything that I need.”
I knew then that the pilgrimage program was launched.
This Cathedral is still not as accessible as it needs to be…but it will be! In the last several years we have worked hard to make this house of prayer available to more and more people. It was not too long ago that the elevator was installed that enables more people to go to the crypt level Chapels and bookstore with no other assistance.
Jesus had visited the Cathedral this level himself a few years before, laid his hands on the entire area and said, “Ephphatha! Be opened!” So, literally, we opened the doors in the crypt level to make the area more wheelchair accessible, even the doors leading into Resurrection Chapel and the Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. They had been kept closed to keep out the noise of tour groups, so that those sacred spaces could remain quiet for those who wanted to meditate and pray. Well, it’s a bit noisier there now than it used to be, but it’s more Christ-like. No one seems to mind.
But church barriers are not merely physical; they are also at times emotional and spiritual, erecting walls of inhospitality just as impenetrable as the limestone upon which this magnificent structure is built. In June of 1987, President Reagan stood at the Berlin Wall in Germany, and speaking for freedom-loving peoples everywhere he declared in such powerful words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear this wall down!” And that wall came down. In the same way, as long as Jesus Christ is preached and proclaimed in this place, no wall in this cathedral will be so thick as to keep out any person who wants to make this their spiritual home away from home in the nation’s capital. This is a National House of Prayer for All People; no one is excluded, no one is a stranger in this house of God—especially the unclean.
A postscript to the Gospel story: In Jesus’ earlier exorcism in the Decapolis, the unclean spirits went into the pigs. But in today’s healing, the spirit of deafness seems to have gone into the crowd who refused to hear Jesus’ words. He “ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they spoke of it.” The irony is clear: the deaf man hears, but the crowd cannot hear the word of the Lord. Apparently, deafness is not only a physiological phenomenon, but a spiritual one as well. May God help us to hear the word of the Lord today: “Be opened!”
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.