Sermon for Sunday 5 September 2021
“He has done everything well; he makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
In the evening of 14th September 1822, Jean-Francois Champollion ran through Paris in the dead of night to his brother’s house. He hammered on the door, and, upon arrival, shouted out the words, “Je tiens mon affaire!” – “I’ve got it!” He immediately collapsed on the floor in a state of complete exhaustion. He spent the next 5 days in bed entirely overcome and almost unable to utter a word.
What had he done? He had just managed to crack the Rosetta stone. He had for the first time, translated hieroglyphs, and could finally read a language that had remained a mystery for thousands of years.
Whether that story is true or not is debated. Champollion was the most appalling self-publicist and many historians suspect him of having completely invented it in order to burnish his reputation.
What is undoubtedly the case, however, is the extraordinary role he played in the gradual decipherment of hieroglyphs, and the foundation of modern Egyptology.
It was one of those pivotal moments in C19th cultural history. The cracking of a language, which suddenly opened up the glories of a vast Egyptian world that beforehand had been a closed mystery.
Language lies at the heart of our gospel reading today. In that reading, Jesus gives back to a deaf mute the power to hear and to speak. In giving him back the power to speak, his isn’t just remedying a physical problem. He is radically enabling that man to connect with the world around him again. A bit like Champollion’s discovery, he suddenly finds a whole new world opens up to him that was previously shrouded in mute mystery, and silent incomprehension.
Sometimes, we all need moments like the one we saw in today’s gospel in which Jesus loosens our tongues and unstops of our ears – a moment in which he suddenly gives us a new vision of what our interaction with the world around might be like.
We sometimes need Jesus to help us communicate with a world that we are at risk of not being able to speak to or hear. We need to learn afresh the language of the world, so as to be able to decipher what the world is saying back to us.
If we don’t, our interaction ends up being like that Rosetta stone before Champollion – a dusty museum piece that speaks of mutual incomprehension and haunted mystery.
Our PCC finalised last week a document called our Mission Action Plan. I spoke about it in our parish email this week, where you can find more details. It is a distillation of many weeks of reflection and discussion. In the plans and goals laid out there, I hope one of the things we are trying to do is to learn afresh a new language that will enable us to communicate with the world, and help us to hear what those outside our church are saying back to us.
The big idea in the Action Plan is this. We want to spend the next 18 months getting our parish back on firm foundations as we emerge from COVID. I suspect this will take far longer and be a bigger task than many people are imagining. It will not be a simple bounce back.
We need to renew and revitalise the basic building blocks of our parish’s life – our means of communication, governance, our liturgical timetable and so on. The aim is to have restored congregational attendance to its pre-COVID levels in 18 months’ time, and to have revitalised the basic patterns of our parish’s life.
Once that is done, we can then make further plans to build on those foundations in order to respond to the many issues that so many want us to attend to – issues such as the problem of homelessness, making our parish more attractive to younger people or making provision for children and families.
I hope what we see in our gospel reading today might be a kind of model for how we can learn afresh a new language with which to interact with the world.
One of the languages we need is the language of loving service, reaching out to others in need.
We also need the language of listening, as we seek not to clobber the world with the right answers, but to listen to the questions and ideas that people bring to us as they seek the living God.
We need the language of worship, in which people find in our liturgy the presence of the God they yearn for.
And perhaps most importantly, we need the language of welcome, in which we seek to be open to those around us, and embracing of newcomers.
Whether his deciphering of the Rosetta stone really happened like Champollion described we’ll never know. But that story expresses something of the overwhelming power language, and communication has to open new vistas, fresh connections, and immense landscapes of wonder and creativity.
Let us ask God to help us learn the new language we need to communicate afresh with the world in which we live and which we want to serve. Let us pray Jesus will unstop our ears, and loosen our tongues as we hear him say to each and every one of us, “Ephphatha – be opened.”
Fr Peter Anthony