Sunday, February 01, 2009

Love that Listens

A sermon by Greg Ledbetter | February 1, 2009

Scripture: I Corinthians 8:1-11

An adult came upon a child drawing on a piece of paper in the back of the church. With kindly curiosity, the adult asked the child: “What are you drawing?” The child looked up and said: “I’m drawing a picture of God.” “How can you draw a picture of God when nobody knows what God looks like?” The child puzzled on that one for a moment, then said: “Well … they will when I get done.” I love that young confidence.

If you had to draw a picture of God … what would you draw? Would you try to draw a face? Or would you try to draw … mystery? Maybe our Jackson Pollock Ordinary time Painting depicts the mystery of God. Or would try to draw some aspect of God that is significant for you? To depict a part of what you feel to be true and important about God. On the front and the back of the bulletin this morning are drawings of ears. If I had to “draw God”, I suppose one of my inclinations would be to simply draw an ear. God as a cosmic, divine, listening ear.

In the Bible, the words “hear” and “listen” and their variants occur over 1500 times. Hearing and listening are supremely important divine and human activities. Many of these hearing/listening references refer to human activity, but some of the most significant references are of God’s hearing and listening activity.

Here are the final words of the 2nd chapter of Exodus: 23 After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. 24God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them. Later, God speaks to Moses out of a burning bush, telling Moses: “I have heard the cries of my people.”

God is a LISTENER … God hears, God absorbs, God understands and, ultimately, God responds. But first and foremost: God listens.

It seems to me that our impulse to pray is based entirely on this understanding of God. God may not be a “giant cosmic ear”, but God is a cosmic heart that hears … a heart that is profoundly and compassionately open to the words and expressions and feelings of our own hearts: our sighs … our groans … our elation … our agony.

The familiar words of the psalmist express this for us: “God, you have searched me and known me …”. Hearing and understanding and knowing us are all important ways of God’s LOVING us. Really trusting or learning to trust at the core level of our being that God hears, understands and knows us is an incredible defense against the many assaults against our being in this life. You’ve probably seen the phrase on somebody’s refrigerator: “God, there’s nothing that you and I can’t face together.” It’s kind of a cute sentiment and … it’s profoundly true. Knowing that God “get’s you” and is “with you” is much of what it takes to sustain us and strengthen in the midst of great challenges and struggles.

It seems to me that God sets the bar very high when it comes to relating, one heart to another. If we take the Biblical portraits of God seriously, we understand God to be an active and earnest listener.

I’m sure Woody Allen must, at some time, have depicted God as a cosmic psychotherapist … a cosmic shrink … bearded and nodding as we lay on God’s couch pouring out our hearts. But it’s not the worst way to think of God. One of the most important therapeutic developments in the past 50 years is a practice known as “Active Listening.” It is a practice that was developed by Carl Rogers and often goes by the name: Rogerian listening. People joke that you have to have good ball-bearings in your neck because active listening is usually accompanied by a lot of nodding. And the nodding is indicative of the significant effort put forth by the listener. And in fact, the practice of “Active Listening” is hardly restricted to therapy. It has come into wide practice in the workplace and in the home. I imagine, Jodie, that active listening is at the very heart of the pastoral care you learned in your year of Clinical Pastoral Education.

Active listening consists of “positive encouragement” … “attentive listening” … “total listening” … “reflecting” … “demonstrating respect” … Active listening is a structured way of listening and responding to others. It focuses attention on the speaker. Suspending one’s own frame of reference for a time and suspending judgment for a time are important in order to fully attend to the speaker.

Perhaps most of all, active listening consists in an inner determination that mutual understanding is important … should exist … and is worth achieving even if it takes a lot of hard work to achieve.

I’m remembering a marriage and relationship enrichment seminar we had quite a few years ago … probably ten years ago. And, if I remember correctly, a couple of our couples were thrust into the not-to-be-envied position of having to role play the challenges of communication in a long-term relationship. And I believe that Karen and Richard were one of those couples.

Anyone who has ever been a part of any loving, committed relationship knows the great challenges of communicating well. Listening and hearing and understanding on the part of both parties is critical to the health and wellbeing and survival of any committed relationship. And it’s not only true of our marriages and long-term committed partnerships, it’s also true of our friendships. And it’s true of the relationships we make and sustain in places like your garden variety local congregation like Shell Ridge.

As much as any set of relationships, churches have struggled with communication … listening and hearing and understanding. For some folk, churches seem characterized especially by their inability to communicate well … characterized by their MIS-communication … by their inability to listen and hear and understand. And we do well to take the long view and keep a broad historical perspective: there ain’t nuthin’ new under the sun. The struggle of congregations to communicate well is an ancient virus that has infected the church since the time of its inception and afflicted communities of faith long before.

In Matthew 13, the disciples come to Jesus and ask him why he speaks in parables, in these dense, not-always-easily-understood stories. Jesus says:

13The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” 14With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
“You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
15For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”
16But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.

So you see, even back to the time of Jesus, and before Jesus, back to the time of the prophet Isaiah, there was a tendency to struggle and fail in the essential task of communication. The prophet seeks to communicate the heart of God to the people, but they don’t get it … and they don’t seem to WANT to get it. They can’t be bothered to open up the ears of their hearts and can’t imagine that there’s any truth more important than their own, or any story worth listening to beyond their own story. Because they have become dull and non-understanding, their relationship with God foundered and failed. And great was their fall.

After Jesus’ words were spoken, but before they were written in the gospel, Paul was writing his own words down, hoping to gain a hearing with one of the congregations he founded. After his conversion, Paul had taken the gospel on the road and established new following of Jesus all over Asia Minor. One of the stops along the way was Corinth, a trading center and a place where a host of cultures and religions met and mixed and sometimes clashed. Corinth was not at all unlike the San Francisco Bay Area with our great mix of cultures and languages and faiths. We used to joke in seminary that every faith that was ever conceived likely had a practitioner in that city.

Paul went to Corinth preaching a message that was, in many ways, “trans-cultural”—it was a gospel or “good news” that was being freed from its culture of origin. It had its roots in Jewish soil, but it was flourishing and flowering and bearing fruit in cities and sensibilities far from where it started. By the time Paul wrote the first of the letters to the Corinthian church, it’s clear that the church reflects the diversity of its city—as every church should. There are, among others, Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians. Each group brought into the community different understandings of “how things are”. Each brought out of their old lives and faiths and associations things that were important—and they were often brought into the new life and faith and association. Jewish Christians, for example, felt that all men should be circumcised. It wasn’t a part of their past they want to let go of. They naturally projected it upon their new faith. But circumcision was completely foreign to the non-Jewish Christians and they resisted attempts to get them to belatedly comply with this bizarre practice.

Food was another area of potential conflict. You’ll remember that when we go to Congregation B’Nai Tikvah and share in the Winter Nights program, there are different dietary understandings to which we have to be sensitive if we are to be good partners in this ministering relationship. But clearly in Paul’s time a certain degree of sensitivity was lacking.

You see, in Corinth, most of the meat that was available for consumption was meat that had previously been offered to idols. For some members of the Corinthian church, eating this meat would be tantamount to acknowledging a god other than the God of Israel, before whom there should be no others. It’s right there in the Ten Commandments. The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. Right?

Others in the congregation said: “Puhlease … who believes in those gods? … who believes in that claptrap?” And they ate the meat with no qualm of conscience and probably harangued those who wouldn’t. It would kind of be like Wendy and Elizabeth saying to Lisa and Jerald at B’Nai Tikvah, “Oh c’mon, get over yourselves. I’m bringing a lasagna with meat and cheese mixed together and you’re going to like it.” This is how international incidents get started.

Paul is like Rabbi Asher and me trying wade into where angels fear to tread, to cool the hot heads and to bring people around a table of conversation and deepened understanding. To the Church in Corinth, Paul is pleading for sensitivity. “It’s not ALL about YOU” he seems to be saying. “Having what you want when you want it no matter who might be hurt or offended does not help anybody.” “Yeah, but Christ has set us free from the law, you told us” they would counter. “’For freedom Christ has set us free!’ Your first sermon to us … remember?” There’s nothing a preacher hates worse than having her or his words used against them.

And now Paul is having to fill in the gaps that still existed when he moved on from Corinth to other places of mission. Paul now begins to talk about the importance of balancing freedom with responsibility … practicing freedom within the context of a diverse community where forcefully exerting your individuality can create enormous tensions in the community. Paul suggests that there is a certain sensitivity that is important to the fragile fabric of community.

It will be another five chapters before Paul’s words finally burst into their most creative form: the so-called “love chapter” that we heard read last week. Listening and hearing and understanding and developing compassionate sensitivity to one another are all critical ingredients of community of ANY size—whether a community of two in loving partnership or a community of many in a church or even a community of nations.

Yesterday’s Contra Costa Times contained a letter in the Reader’s Forum by my—and our—good friend, Rabbi Raphael Asher. Rabbi Asher is not only the Rabbi of B’nai Tikvah, but he is also the president of the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County. I can only imagine the difficulty of trying to lead a local interfaith community with so many challenges in the international community that center in the Middle East. And I can only vaguely imagine what it’s like to sit through meetings and public gatherings where the state of Israel gets repeatedly pilloried and pummeled. And while the words used to apply the verbal beatings may contain a part of the truth, they don’t contain the whole truth nor do they in any way bring differing understandings to a place where a common truth may be found. Here are Rabbi Asher’s concluding words:

We in this country are entering a period where opposing opinions can and should be aired and discussed, but argumentation that employs incendiary references to the holocaust or speaks of Israel's culpability in a repetitive, one-sided manner does nothing to enhance understanding of a tragic state of affairs.

Neither will such arguments nurture a concerted response to Palestinian misery and Israel's vulnerability.

I will not recite all the legitimate reasons for Israel's incursion into Gaza, nor will I list all the times that Israel's gestures toward Palestinian autonomy have been met with renewed opportunities for terror.

The time will come, and I hope sooner rather than later, when the real grievances of both the Palestinians and the people of Israel must be addressed in a serious, diplomatic format.

To achieve a comprehensive peace, the voices around that table must be more sober and less inflammatory than those that seek only to justify their own rhetoric.

Voices around the table. Out of Rabbi Asher’s heritage, the only table that really mattered was the family dinner table. It was a table of radical welcome and hospitality. It was a table where differences were never enough to keep you from sharing what the table and its fellowship had to offer. Of course, in our frantic, fast-food culture, who has time to join their family members at the table much less to linger there and there to absorb its subtler blessings. And it seems that inability to gather and remain at the table is a planet-wide curse … how hard it is to get opposing groups to sit together long enough to come to a meaningful understanding, each of the other. I see marriages where this is true. I see school boards and school administrations and unions where this is true. And I see it in the more often than not failed practices of U.S. foreign policy.

It is said that when Martin King used the statement I’m about to say, that it would be met with raucous, knowing laughter when spoken from the pulpit of African-American churches. King said: “It may be true that you can’t pass a law that will make a man love me, but you can pass a law that will keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”

So maybe our times of speaking and listening at any one of a number of tables won’t put us instantly in the kissing and hugging mood … won’t force others to love us, won’t lead to any quick “kum ba yahs” … but if it leads to new understanding, new sympathy, new sensitivity, then it is time well spent and can be the first of MANY steps on the long, stony road to the only “peace” that has any meaning.

On several other occasions Martin King spoke words at which no one laughed, words that provoked only somber nodding: “We’ll either learn to live together as sisters and brothers or we’ll perish together as fools.” It is hard to imagine words that are more pragmatically truer than these words spoken by Martin Luther King.

I’ve heard, from many quarters this week, stories of struggle in relationships of all kinds. And the common theme, if there is one, is that the challenge to hear the other with empathy and compassion and understanding is still one that remains beyond the reach of so many. So many.

But in that same week, I have also witnessed quite the opposite. I have witnessed people in relationships of all kind, from the relationships with their own healing hearts to their relationship with the planet to a nearly God-given shift in the relational face of our nation’s foreign policy. And if you attend to what you are seeing, watch and listen with great intentionality, you will see something that doesn’t look at all like the flowery valentines hearts that are cluttering our stores, but you may be tempted to call it “love”. It’s a tough love, it’s an unsentimental love and it’s the truest and most hopeful thing in the world. About that love Paul said to his community and ours, to couples and churches and nations. And before I speak again these almost woefully familiar words. I want to remind you that this table that has been spreading before us is symbolic of everything I’ve said and symbolic of the words I’m about to say. And as I read the words, I invite you to imagine in your mind’s eye, a relationship of any size that needs the truth of Paul’s great words:

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

When you go to the table of relationship, any relationship, remember: if you put in love, you will take out love. And your solitary, self-preserving “me”, will be transformed into a communal, creation serving and saving “we”. I invite you to do this … for our lives and our world and our future on this planet depend upon it.


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