The man’s infirmity was a double one. Not only could he not hear, but he had a speech impediment. He could not speak clearly. It is not surprising to find the two problems in one person. If his hearing had been impaired from an early age, it seems almost unavoidable that his speech would also be impaired because he would be unable to listen to those speaking around him and imitate the complexities of their speech.
Jesus sets him free from both these burdens. He hears clearly, and even more remarkably, he is immediately able to speak clearly. The people around him are astounded, astounded beyond measure by what has happened.
Is this the story of one handicapped man somewhere in the region of the Decapolis, a federation of Greek cities in ancient Palestine? Does it deal only with that single, solitary man?
Or does it have to do with all people whose hearing and speaking handicaps could be recognized by medical testing, people in need of speech therapy and hearing aids? If so, then uncomfortable questions arise about why some are left behind with muddled hearing and slurred speech.
Or perhaps this Decapolis story of one man who comes to hear and speak clearly has to do with a wider collection of people than those whose speech and hearing handicaps register on conventional tests. Perhaps this story is about all of us, insofar as we seem deaf and speechless regarding the wonders of the kingdom of God. If the story has a frame of reference that includes each and every one of us, at least some of the time, then the uncomfortable questions that arise are numerous indeed.
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When the topic is Christian discipleship, we may well link discipleship with belief or action. Certainly both action and belief are indispensable elements of discipleship. But before discipleship can issue in belief or action, it must be apparent in listening. The disciple is somebody who listens. The Christian disciple is somebody who listens to the eternal Word of God made flesh in Jesus.
The listening of discipleship is not limited to an initial period in the Christian life. It is instead lifelong, a listening that becomes more acute with the passing years.
The listening of discipleship is not limited to a particular place. It needs to happen in the Christian assembly, but must happen elsewhere also. It needs to happen in the place of personal prayer, but must happen elsewhere also. The listening of discipleship must become so constant that no place is exempt from it. The disciple comes to every place and circumstance ready to listen, expecting to encounter the Word, eager to welcome that Word.
There is much that interferes with the listening essential to discipleship. Noise fills the heart of the disciple, the rumblings of false desire, fear, and distraction. Noise also pours into the disciples’ heart from outside, from a world organized against the purposes of God and intent on offering us consolation prizes if we abandon our desire for the true kingdom. This noise too is the rumblings of false desire, fear, and distraction. In this respect, all of us pass much of our days in a world filled with the functionally deaf, those who longer listen, who perhaps have never listened. Thus, people who fail their hearing tests are not so handicapped as any of us when we appear stone deaf to the eternal Word, unable to engage in the listening essential to discipleship.
Today’s gospel story makes the link between the inability to hear and the inability to speak. If you don’t hear clearly the speech of others, how can your own speech be clear?
In similar fashion, the hearing which is discipleship determines the speech which is discipleship. Unless we truly hear the eternal Word which sounds forth everywhere, and perfectly in Jesus, unless we hear that Word, then how can we respond to it with the response which is discipleship? Discipleship means praising God, not only with our lips, but through our lives. Discipleship is where Isaiah’s ancient prophecy finds its deep fulfillment as the tongue of the once-speechless sings for joy.
If we truly recognize the Word ringing in our ears all around, not only in times of public worship and personal prayer, but at all times and in all places, then we cannot help but respond with a similar clarity and insistence.
Praise is recognition. The praise of God is recognition that in this broken and benighted world God has acted, and continues to act, and works to bring all things to their true fulfillment.
Praise is what happens when faith finds its voice. As the crowd in today’s gospel is left astounded beyond all measure, so the crowd of Christian disciples are those left astounded beyond all measure at how they are privileged to be on the hearing end of God’s eternal Word and on the speaking end of the praise which is discipleship in full swing.
Hearing finds its fulfillment in speech. Speech is made perfect by a listening that is ever more disciplined and desire-driven. Our voices are tuned by our hearing of the eternal Word, and its crescendo in Christ where the divine voice and the human voice become a single sound. It is thus that our voices are tuned, and thus we raise our voices if we are disciples, freed from impediments of ear and tongue.
Some will not choose to listen, to understand. Some simply cannot do so at this time. But many will listen, and for some our efforts at praise will be for them a vehicle of the eternal Word that sets them free to sing. Our praise is witness.
This is a liberating gospel. We can put down various burdens today. The burden to have all the right answers, or to do all the good deeds, or to protect what we call the truth. What’s asked of us is both more modest and grander than that. What we need to do, at all times and in all places, is to allow Jesus to open our ears and let loose our tongue.
Open our ears to hear the eternal Word that speaks to us always despite the rumbles in the world and the rumbles in our hearts.
Loosen our tongue so that our response to that Word can be praise. The praise which is recognition that God still works in this world. The praise which is what happens when faith finds its voice. The praise that replaces the noise of cynicism with songs of wonder and joy.
During the week that begins today, may each of us allow Jesus to open our ears and let loose our tongue. He’s eager to take a healing step in our lives. May we eagerly welcome his healing. The eternal Word awaits us, wanting to be heard in some new way. The eternal Word awaits us, wanting to be spoken by us in some new situation.
During the week that begins today, Jesus has something to tell us that can call forth our praise. Like that man in the Decapolis region so long ago, may we dare to listen with ears made new, may we dare to speak with tongues set free.
Copyright for this sermon 2008, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).