Hearing and Listening

My sermon for Pentecost yesterday focused on the importance of communication and listening in our life together. What I find most miraculous about the Pentecost story is not necessarily the speaking in many languages, but rather the fact that people took the time to listen to each other. How often could so much confusion and hurt be avoided if we really listened to one another.

Listening involves more than the mechanical act of hearing someone else speak. It involved respecting the other person, trusting the other person, believing the other person. If someone tells you they are hurting–don’t discount them. If someone tells you they see the world differently than you–don’t write them off. Really listening means taking someone else’s humanity seriously. Treating them as an equal. It doesn’t mean agreeing. If you are listening to someone, and you hear something hurtful, something racist, or sexist, or homophobic, listening then requires a reaction. Listening requires standing up and speaking out when we hear hate.

Do you find it hard to listen? I know I do sometimes. I am either wrapped up in my own concerns, or assume I already know what’s going to be said. Or assume I know better. It’s hard sometimes. And that is when we can pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us.

Sermon below:

This past weekend was the annual Synod Assembly of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod. It is a gathering of over 150 Lutheran congregations in the five county area. This year there were over 500 people registered—either pastors, rostered leaders, or lay delegates from congregations. Agencies, seminaries, and camps send representatives to make presentations, there are booths, tents, videos playing, music playing, people reuniting. It’s a really energetic and loud environment.

This year, because I have trouble saying no, my husband Tim and I were signed up to help with registration. What I thought would be a chore was actually pretty fun—being at registration meant we saw every single person coming through the doors, and were at the center of the hubbub before assembly started.

It was in this crowded, noisy environment, while I was explaining where to find refreshments to one registrant, that Tim passed me a sheet of paper on which a woman had written down her name. I stopped, momentarily silenced, not sure what this was. Then he pointed to the woman across from him. She was a member, I realized instantly, of Christ the King Deaf Church, one of our congregations in West Chester.

She smiled at me, and pointed to the paper, then to herself, and I quite stupidly smiled back and said, Good morning, how are you? Then became very embarrassed, and busied myself with finding her nametag and getting materials for her. While I composed myself, I experienced an overwhelming desire to be able to communicate with her. To not have to point to the release she needed to sign, and hope she understood. To be able to say welcome, I’m glad you’re here.

I couldn’t. I can do my sign language alphabet. I can sign Jesus Loves Me, although that doesn’t help in real life situations. But what I could do was say thank-you. It’s like this. And so I did. When she handed me back her form, I said thank-you in a language that she understood. And she said thank-you back. Then she was gone again, into the crowd of noise that she couldn’t hear, and the conversations she couldn’t understand.

We have interpreters at synod assembly, and over the years the entire synod has learned to applaud in sign language. It’s jazz hands. When Christ the King was recognized at one point, the entire auditorium of 500 people applauded together in sign language. It was a beautiful sight.

But my encounter with this woman left me realizing just how much I take communication for granted. And it makes me think of that first day of Pentecost—when the disciples were surrounded by people speaking so many different languages. They were probably used to it—Jerusalem was a very cosmopolitan city. But imagine—they had this fantastic news to share—and weren’t able to communicate. Or imagine being one of the travelers. Maybe you and your group of five or six are the only ones who speak your language. How disorienting. How alienating.

And then suddenly you hear someone proclaiming good news, and you can understand them! Imagine how that voice, your language, words that make sense, must cut through all of the other noise that is just babble to you! What an amazing gift is communication.

And we’re blessed with so much of it: we can email, text, facetime one another. We can be connected to someone across the world almost instantly. If we’re in a foreign country, we have Google translate to help us out. Our ability to communicate with one another has never been greater.

And yet, the gift of Pentecost is not simply one of communication. The disciples were able to communicate thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit, but what was even more miraculous was that people listened. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit to be able to listen to each other, to be able to hear each other.

While our ability to communicate is better than ever, I’m not sure our gift for listening has kept up pace. When we are inundated with news and words and opinions from all sides, sometimes we get tired of listening. What if, this Pentecost, we made it our goal to listen to one another? We don’t even have to speak other languages to do it. But we can spend time in conversations, not just planning what we’ll say next, but truly hearing what the other person is saying. Not assuming we know what they’re going to say.

Because Pentecost wasn’t just a once and done event. It wasn’t a ‘missed it and you’re out of luck’ moment. When we have these festivals, it can seem like we are celebrating past events. And while in some ways that is true, we are also always asking that those past events become present realities for us today. That we too, experience our own Pentecost, our own knowledge and gift of the Spirit.

That same Spirit—that Jesus prayed for and gave to his disciples, that swept through the crowd like winds and tongues of fire—that same spirit is present with each and every one of us. It is the spirit that enlivens our church, the spirit that pushes us out of our comfort zones. The spirit that reminds us of the needs of our neighbors and God’s unfailing love and support of the poor and down-trodden.

It is the Spirit we will invoke today, as we confirm six ninth-graders. We will place hands on their heads, and pray: Lord, stir up in (Zoe, Paul, Helena, Anna, Lexi, Maddi) stir up in them the gift of your Holy Spirit.

Lord, on this day of Pentecost, stir up in all of us the gift of your Holy Spirit. The spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord the spirit of joy in your presence…. And not just stir up the gift, but let us truly listen to what that Spirit is saying. What it is saying in us, and what it is saying in others. Let us listen to what the spirit is saying in our young people, what the Spirit is saying in our church. For the gifts of speaking and hearing, we say “Thank you.”

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Communities of Abundance

My sermon from yesterday (below) was on John 5:1-9. It is the story of a man who was ill for 38 years, and who then is healed by Jesus. The sermon focused on the ailing man, and the different ways we might need to be made well in our lives.

But I was also really drawn to the community there, gathered around the pool. People from all over, I suspect, brought together by the common denominator of needing healing. While they may have formed bonds and companionship through this, they were also in direct competition with one another. Only the first person in the pool would be healed.

There had been a lot of work done in church circles lately comparing what we call “Theologies of Scarcity” and “Theologies of Abundance.” Theologies of scarcity operate under the assumption that there isn’t enough to go around. You name it–time, money, people, energy–there is only a limited amount available and so we must preserve, conserve, and defend it. On the one hand, there is some truth to this. There are, after all, only 24 hours in the day, only so much energy people have to give.

But this kind of thinking also leads us to act defensively, competitively, and most damaging of all, desperately. You can see it in the community gathered around the pool–just imagine, being so desperate for the limited healing available that you push another needy person out of the way.

Scarcity thinking is common in churches. We worry that we must compete, scrimp and save, and always worry about whether there is enough. Different committees and programs can feel that they are in competition with each other for the limited resources of peoples’ time and money. There can even be resentment that if something good is happening in one ministry, it will take away from another. There is only so much to go around, after all.

Theologies of abundance, on the other hand, operate under the assumption that there is more than enough. That when we share, when we invite, when we stop worrying, we will be astonished by just how very much we have. It’s the underlying philosophy of the feeding of the 5,000. Although the disciples were looking at how little they had, Jesus only saw the opportunity to share what there was.

Living with an outlook of abundance begets more abundance. There is not only so much to go around, but more than enough to go around. One person’s success is success for all. We can collaborate and share without fear of losing.

What do you see as the dominate philosophy in your life? Your family? In your church? How might we form communities where our gut reaction is not shove and claw our way into first place, but where we lift each other up and share in others’ good fortune?

We can start, I think, in worship. There, we are the recipients of abundance, and can see and hear and taste what abundance is like. There is more than enough forgiveness when we confess our sins. There is grace and love enough for everyone present, shared in bread and wine and water and word. There is never ‘not enough.’ It can be a model to show us how we might live that abundantly ourselves–where sharing does not bring about fear, but rather hope and love.

Sermon from May 1, 2016:

“Do you want to be made well?” This is the question Jesus poses to the man who has lain ill by the pool of Bethesda for 38 years. 38 years the man has been ill. And Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be made well?” I have been known to give a certain amount of side-eye when I hear what I think is a particularly stupid question. Had Jesus asked me if I wanted to be made well after I had been ailing for 38 years, he may have gotten the mother of all eye rolls from me.

Really? Really, Jesus? It seems like such a ridiculous question. The man, after all, has been at a pool reputed for healing for all these years, seemingly desiring to partake of its miraculous qualities. The legend had it that every so often an angel would come, stir up the waters of the pool, and the first to enter would be healed. His very presence by the pool speaks to the man’s desire to be healed.

Those who have suffered from serious illnesses can tell of the frustrations that come from wanting to be well, and yet being unable to resume previous activities, being unable to force their bodies to comply with their wishes.

On that level, Jesus’ question seems offensive. It implies that the man may not truly wish to get better. That there was maybe more he could have been doing. But his question also hints that Jesus might see more of the situation than first meets the eye. It’s a question not many would ask. We assume we know what others want. We assume that our definition of well is what everyone desires.

I think the man did want to be healed. I think his presence by the pool speaks to that desire. But we won’t ever be able to know for sure, because he doesn’t answer Jesus’ question. Instead, he offers an excuse for why had not yet been made well. “He has been there for 38 years, but every time the water is stirred, someone else goes down ahead of him.”

I think he wants to be healed. Or, I think he did want to be healed. In the beginning. But perhaps decades of being pushed out of the way, decades of disappointed hopes have left him resigned to his position. He’s near the temple, perhaps he has realized that he can survive well enough on what passersby are willing to give. Or maybe he still held out elusive, life-giving hope that he might reach the pool first at some point, even though 38 years would prove it very unlikely.

I don’t know. But I do know that Jesus doesn’t assume. He doesn’t assume that he knows the other’s thoughts and desires. He doesn’t assume that the man believes he is better off healed. But I want to ask the question of us—do we want to be made well?

I don’t mean physically. Though some of us know firsthand, or at least know someone acquainted with the way years of unresolved and uncured illness can drain our hope, and leave us feeling like there is no option but to remain sick—I want to talk about the ways—emotionally, in relationships, in our jobs, in our families—we might hesitate over the question, do you want to be made well?

I heard it said once, that people do not really fear change, but what they truly fear is loss. We do not resist change because we are against something new, but because we fear losing something—whether it is a loss of security, a loss of stability, or simply a loss of what feels comfortable. I wonder if the man feared loss. If maybe he feared the loss of a community he had been a part of for 38 years. Or that if he returned to his family and village, it would not be the way he remembered it.

Every change, even good changes, require giving something else up. A child leaving for college—a much celebrated occasion—requires losing some aspects of the relationship, losing a physical closeness and intimacy. Entering into a new relationship requires losing some personal independence. Acquiring a promotion, or applying for a new position, requires losing some stability and comfort. A church, going through a change perhaps because of much longed for new members and new ideas, requires losing some much loved traditions.

Do you want to be made well? Do you want to mend the relationship, even if it means swallowing your pride? Do you want to finally make your own happiness a priority, even if it means losing friendships along the way? Do you want to seek fulfillment at work, even if it means taking a step down? Do you want to put family time first, even if it means giving up other activities? The question is much less ridiculous, and much harder to answer than at first glance. How often do we avoid the things that might make us well, instead clinging to a less life-giving, but known and comfortable situation?

Returning to Jesus and the man—did the man want to be well, even if it meant the loss of everything he’d known for nearly four decades? Jesus never gets an answer to his question. Maybe what he was told was exactly what he expected to hear, I don’t know. What does happen, though, is that he makes the man well. He tells him to take up his mat and walk, and it happens!

Jesus wasn’t going to wait until the man was ready. Maybe he thought he’d be waiting quite a while. Instead, he offered unsought for and unexpected grace. Unexpected healing. God doesn’t always wait until we’re ready to be made well. Maybe God gets tired of waiting. God doesn’t wait for us to act, but rather, God pushes and pulls and cajoles—surprising us with unexpected and sometimes unsought for love and grace.

Jesus came to make the whole world well—in so many more ways than physically healing. Jesus came to change our everyday comfortable existence into something more—more life-giving, more fulfilling. It requires loss. It requires loss on our parts, but it also took the loss of Jesus himself on the cross. But through that loss, a new reality was born.

God never waits for us to make ourselves well. God never even waits for us to realize that we’re in need of healing in the first place. Instead, God shows up in miraculous and surprising ways—through friends’ urging and empathy, through our own inner voices, through a supportive and listening community. It might mean change. It might mean loss. But it might also mean life, and love, and grace.

So, I ask you—where in your life might you want to be made well? I think we all have one spot or another, whether a relationship with a friend or relative, a job that could be more fulfilling, a need to focus on yourself that you’ve never felt able to do. Where do you need to be made well? And how might God already be working to do that very thing? Because once we ask the question, we will be surprised by the way God is miles ahead of us offering new life and grace. Amen.