Sunday, June 22, 2014

On Listening: Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus said, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  (Matthew 10:39)  To be a disciple of Jesus is to live a dying life.  We have to die before we can live.  What does this mean?

My mind immediately moves to heroic action in opposition to evil, being a martyr for justice like Mahatma Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King.  Or at least the kind of renunciation and single-minded commitment to serving the poor exemplified by Dorothy Day or Mother Teresa of Calcutta; dying to privilege if not literal physical death.  I’m not a hero or, in all honestly, all that single-minded in my devotion to serving the poor.

Does that mean I’m off the hook?  That living a dying life is only for spiritual elites, not regular schmucks like me?  Does this mean I can’t follow Jesus?  I don’t think so.  Such comparisons are not very helpful.  In fact, I think they can lead us astray as much as they can inspire us.   The Dr. King and the Blessed Teresa we that we revere represent the end of a long process that begins in a very ordinary way.  It begins with listening. 

The dying to which we are called is first and foremost the dying that we experience when we cultivate the practice of listening.  Authentic listening is always a little death.  It requires me to set aside my preconceptions and preoccupations so that I can be present to another.   At least temporarily, I have to allow my ego to die, to let go of the imperative to impose my will and instead cultivate a stance of receptivity.  Such listening is quite different from screening out what I don’t wish to hear, or seeking only what will help me to express more powerfully an essentially preformed response.  When I really listen, I open myself to the possibility that I may be changed, even profoundly changed.  I may discover that I am not who I thought I was, or who I want to be, or that I am becoming someone quite unexpected.  I listen, so that I may discover my true self.   

This is so whether I am listening to another person, or to the interior dialogue – cacophony really – that is usually going on inside me.  How much more so when I come to a place of listening to the deep silence that lies below the surface of the interior and exterior voices calling for my attention.  The deepest listening is attention to the silent abyss from which both interior and exterior voices emerge and return to rest.   This can occasion a real dying; the realization of an ultimate unity of being that de-centers the ego and opens us to the flow of life as it is.  Here, we touch into a truth and a power that may give shape to subsequent word and action.  From the Silence a creative Word emerges and we intuitively know how to respond with creativity and insight to life as it is given in the moment.

The deepest listening frees us from bondage to the internal and external voices that divert us from attending to our true self.   St. Paul speaks of this as the death of the old self, crucified with Christ so that we might not longer be in bondage to sin – sin, understood here, as anything that separates us from our true self in Christ.  Dying in this way, we are raised with Christ and alive in God.   This is what it means to die so that we may live.  Obedience – the root meaning of which is “to listen” – is acting in accordance with our true self. 

Christian disciples are people who are obedient to Jesus – people who learn to listen to the true self that Jesus reveals in the pattern of his own dying life.  Jesus, said, “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” (Matthew 10:27) Living a dying life begins with listening, and then acting from the true self who speaks from the still point of our being.  Listening sets us free so that we can respond to life in ways that allow others to attend to their true self. 

Such freedom can be scary.  It can bring us into conflict with those who prefer our old self, the self that is familiar to them, comfortable, easy to predict or even manipulate; the old self that confirms the status quo.  It requires patience and courage to listen to what Jesus is saying to us, to listen to our Christ nature or true self, especially when what we hear contradicts Mom or Dad or the President or the Pope.  This is the sword of which Jesus speaks, not a literal sword, but the conflict that arises when others resist listening.  Conformity requires a certain kind of deafness.  People who listen are always a threat to the status quo, because one of the things they hear first is the cry of the poor and the oppressed.  Those who listen deeply eventually reach a point where they can no longer keep silent.  It is then that they take up their cross and follow Jesus.  But not all listening is so dramatic.  It can lead to quite simple, yet profound service to others. 

In his book, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, Mark Nepo eloquently describes his experience of progressive hearing loss.  He resisted acknowledging the loss initially, but eventually embraced it as an invitation to a deeper interior silence.  His deafness has heightened his appreciation of the power of listening. 

“Now,” he writes, “I go to a café near our house where the young ones know my name and make my hot chocolate ahead of time if they see me in the parking lot.  What’s beautiful is that they know everyone’s name and everyone’s drink.  This is the sweetest kind of listening.  And you’d think, having lost a good deal of hearing, that noise wouldn’t bother me.  But in fact it bothers me more.  I find it overwhelms me.  Even when I turn my hearing aid off.  So I ask the kind young ones to turn the music down and they do this now, without my asking, as they make my hot chocolate.  This too is instructive . . .

To honor what those around us need in order to hear is an ordinary majesty.  The young ones in the café are my teachers in this.  Not only do they do this for me, but it’s their ethic regarding everyone.  It’s the relational environment they create – a place to gather where everyone can hear.  Their simple caring has made me ask, do I honor what those around me need in order to hear?  Do I help them find their center point of listening?  I ask you the same” (Nepo, p. 8).

“A place to gather where everyone can hear and find their center point of listening” sounds like a good definition of Church to me.  Here at St. James, we are inviting people into a season of listening.  Next month, following the 10 am service each Sunday, you are invited to participate in a small group gathered to listen to one another reflect on those things that bring you joy in life and those concerns that keep you awake at night.  The point is simply to listen to one another as an end-in-itself, trusting that nurturing a culture of listening is one way that we can live a dying life as disciples of Jesus.
Some of you already participated in these groups or one-on-one conversations during Eastertide.  While participants found it to be a positive experience, some initially expressed skepticism about the process.  “Why are we meeting?”  “Are you going to asking me to do something?”  These questions reveal the cynicism of a culture in which genuine listening is rare, and manipulate agendas often are masked by pseudo-listening – even, sometimes especially – at church!  We are inviting a little bit of vulnerability, and trust that we can be a community where everyone can hear and find their center point of listening. 

In closing, I want to briefly comment on the story of Hagar and Ishmael that we heard today, a story which may be unfamiliar but is relevant to theme of listening.  Recall that Abraham and Sarah are the great biblical exemplars of faith, who respond to God’s promise that through them a great nation will arise and become a blessing to all people.  The only problem is that Abraham is old and Sarah is barren. 

Abraham and Sarah persevere through many challenges to travel to the Promised Land, but they promised heir doesn’t appear.  In attempt to take matters into their own hands, Sarah gives her slave, Hagar, as a concubine to Abraham so that Hagar may conceive a son for them.  She does so, but her pregnancy arouses Sarah’s jealousy, who then accuses Hagar of becoming uppity.  Sarah treats Hagar harshly, and so she attempts to run away.

While in the wilderness, an angel of the Lord appears to Hagar, telling her to return to Abraham and Sarah, and promising that her son, too, will be blessed and become the progenitor of a great nation.  The angel also instructs her to name her son, Ishmael, which means “God hears,” because God had given heed to her affliction.  Hagar obeys – listens – and returns to Abraham and Sarah.

The birth of Ishmael is complicated by Sarah’s eventual pregnancy and the birth of Isaac, initiating another round of jealousy and the final expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael.  Near death in the wilderness, the angel again appears and assures Hagar that “God heard the voice of the boy” – in other words, “God hears ‘God hears.’”  God will be faithful to God’s promises; even when, like Abraham and Sarah we doubt the promise, try to take matters into our own hands, and jealously exclude others from sharing in it.  God will be faithful to God’s promises, even when, like Hagar, we are outsiders, bereft in the wilderness and feeling abandoned by God.  God hears the cries of the exploited, the nobodies, who also are promised a share in God’s blessing. 

The God who promises blessing, is first and foremost a God who hears.  It is from the primordial silence, the patient listening through eons of time before time, that God speaks a creative word and brings the universe into being.  It is this God who listens to Hagar the Egyptian slave and to the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, who speaks a liberating word and brings freedom to those who are oppressed.  This Word becomes flesh in Jesus, who invites us to listen as God listens, and so live a dying life that the whole world may become new.  Meister Eckhart said there is nothing so much like God as silence.  And we are never so much like God as when we listen.