February 7, 2016, Listen Up – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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A lot of times, the breakdown in a relationship has to do with a lack of listening: a wife tells her husband, “You aren’t listening to me.” or a child tells his parents, “You never listen to me.”
But what does it mean if I want someone to listen to me? To be specific, what does it mean that I want Carroll to listen to me – because I do, of course. It doesn’t just mean I want him to hear the words that I say; it means much more. It means I want him to pay attention to what I say to him, to hear what I say and understand what I mean when I say it.
It also means I want him to pay attention to things I say and do so that he really knows me. Because Carroll listens to me, he knows that I love Corgis and reading out loud and going barefoot and camping and mushrooms. And he knows that I hate liver and horror movies and making phone calls and selling things and being teased. After being married 42 years, he knows all these things and lots more because he has listened to me. We never sat down and rattled off lists of likes and dislikes; we just live, for the most part, in a posture of listening to one another.
There are so many ways for people to listen to each other – hearing a tone of voice or noticing how they react to something. If you love someone you listen to what they don’t say as much as what they do say; you listen to what they choose; you pay attention to the places they love and the things they keep close to them. That’s all part of listening, because we listen, we pay attention, to the things and people that matter to us.
Today we read the story of the Transfiguration, where God issues a command, on the mountaintop, his voice booming out of the cloud. And the command is this: “This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him.”
It’s a call into relationship: this is my beloved Son: pay attention to him; hear what he says, learn what he cares about. Notice. Remember. Listen to him. For Peter and James and John, who walked back down the mountain alongside their friend and teacher, it’s not hard to understand what that meant. But the call is for us as well. What does it mean for us to listen to the Son? How do we answer the Father’s call into relationship? Because we know that God would never have called us to listen if he wasn’t ready to speak to us, and to be known by us.
The most obvious way that we listen to Jesus is reading the Bible. In John’s gospel, Jesus is even called the Word – because everything that God revealed in his written word finds its fulfillment in his person. If we want to know God; if we want to listen to him; we should open the Bible and read – we know that. But sometimes the Bible seems a little unapproachable: it’s a bigger book than most of us feel ready to tackle, for one thing; and so much of it seems hard to understand. And so people come at the Bible in different ways.
Some people use the Bible like a magic 8-ball. They come to the Bible when they need to find an answer to something important in their lives: to help with a decision they need to make, maybe. They let it fall open at random and and look for some word or phrase that they hope will be God’s message to them. Have you ever done that? I have to admit that I have. The amazing thing is that God, in his great love and humility, wants so much to communicate with us that he sometimes will show up even in our immaturity and superstition. It is our job to listen; and if we are listening, God is always faithful to speak, sometimes even on our own foolish terms. But it’s not the best way to listen.
On the other extreme, there are people who approach the Bible like a research project, something they need to take apart and categorize, so they can pack it all into neat, tidy theological packages. I think when we come at Scripture like that, God most often answers by throwing us curve balls that shatter the foundations of our carefully constructed notions of who he is, so that we can begin to really know him as he is. If you come to the Bible willing to listen, you soon find yourself surprised out of some of your comfortable assumptions, just the way your husband or wife keeps surprising you even after you’ve been married for years and years – as long as you keep paying attention.
We should open the Bible as if it were a letter to us from the person who loves us more than anyone in the whole world – because that’s exactly what it is. Most people don’t write or receive letters very often any more, but when I get a letter, hand-written by a good friend, I savor every word. I read it over and over. That is how we should read the Bible – not as a magic formula for guidance, not as a code to be cracked or a set of facts to be organized, but living words written for our benefit. Every word is from our beloved Teacher and Lord; every word is worth listening to.
But we can also listen for the voice of Jesus from inside, from the deepest parts of ourselves. It is a very rare thing for a human being to hear the voice of God booming out of the heavens, even in the Bible. Most of the time, when people heard from God in the gospels, it was by means of dreams, or through prophecies. But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t speak to us; he speaks to us often; we can be in regular conversation with him. Because if you belong to Christ, his Spirit of Christ lives in you, and he is in communication with you all the time; he is always speaking to us.
Jesus told us that the Father was sending the Spirit to us in his name, and that the Spirit would teach us all things – that’s a lot, ALL things – and that he would bring to our remembrance all that Jesus said to us. It takes practice, learning to listen and recognize his voice amid the clamor of our own thoughts and desires. But we can know that there is One inside of us who knows his voice, and we can hear him when we choose to listen. Again, listening to the Spirit’s voice is not some kind of magic – not a matter of looking for signs to tell us what to do – not even a matter of being a “spiritual” person – it’s more like being married, a life-long practice of being in communion with him and being transformed by our relationship from within.
I think sometimes the last place we expect to hear the voice of our Lord is by listening to one another. But he is present in his people, and he has a lot to say to us through each other. Jesus told us: “if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. “ Therefore, if we are wise, we don’t just discern God’s leading by our own feelings or thoughts about something, or even just by listening to the Spirit within us. We should take seriously what our brothers and sisters say to us as well, because God put us in community for our mutual benefit. Often you can perceive my gifts and my strengths (or weaknesses) better than I can myself – and I can perceive yours. Listening for the voice of God in your brother or sister is one of the most important ways you can submit yourselves to one another.
That isn’t the definitive report on listening to God, of course. We hear the voice of God when we are in the woods or on a mountaintop or at the seashore. We see him in the eyes of our loving animal friends. He speaks to our hearts in a beautiful piece of music, or a handmade quilt or a really good conversation with a friend. He is the Creator; there’s absolutely nothing and no place in this world that we can’t listen to him.
But we spend so much of our time like the three disciples on the mountaintop with Jesus, sleepy and confused. Sometimes we rush around like Peter trying to do stuff – “It’s a good thing we’re here, Lord, because somebody has to micromanage things around here.” And sometimes we are just paralyzed with fear or confusion or just plain weariness. But if we listen to the Father, there is only one thing we need to do. “This is my Son. Listen to him.”
We all know the story of Mary and Martha, and if you’re a Martha kind of person it drives you crazy. For so many years I absolutely hated that story. You remember, Jesus and the disciples were staying for dinner and Martha – good woman that she was – was bustling around doing all the stuff that had to be done. Because somebody has to cook the food – it doesn’t cook itself – and somebody has to clean things up with important visitors here. Somebody’s got to make sure everything is just right, and it’s not going to be that Mary. Look at her – who does she think she is – with all this work to be done, there she is, just sitting at Jesus’ feet – listening.
And you remember what Jesus told her? “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about so many things. But only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good part.” Only one thing is necessary. We are anxious and troubled with so much stuff, aren’t we? So many commitments to keep up with, so many burdens to carry around, so many things to keep track of? We want to take the time to read the Bible, we want to spend time in quiet, we want to stop and hear what someone else has to say, but really, it doesn’t ever feel like there’s time, and we are terrified to slow down and find out.
Hear the voice of the Father from the cloud today. “This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him.” Only one thing is necessary. Listen to him. Lay down your heavy burdens of anxiety and fear and confusion and endless distractions, and take up the light yoke of listening.
Psalm 46, verse 10, calls us to “be still and know” God. Being still doesn’t mean sitting around doing nothing, twiddling our thumbs. To be still and know God is to live our lives in a listening posture, like a husband always eager to know his wife better, or a wife to know her husband. To be still and know God is to be ready to hear, willing to learn and longing to be transfigured, just as Moses was so transfigured by his encounter with God that the skin of his face shone. We might not end up glowing-in-the-dark like Moses, but we can’t listen to God without being changed by his glory and goodness. If we seek him in his Word; if we learn to recognize the voice of his Spirit within us; if we meet him in our brothers and sisters – if we only listen to him – then like husbands and wives grow to look like one another after years of life together, we will grow to take on the glorious likeness of our Lord. “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, will be transformed into his image from one degree of glory to another.”