Thursday, January 15, 2015
January 18, Epiphany 2, The Mission #8: Listening to Listening
1 Samuel 3:1-20
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Twenty years ago I was leading a youth group on a backpacking trip in the Adirondacks, and we saw this beautiful, rushing mountain stream, say fifteen yards wide, and I asked our guide what it was, and I was taken aback when she said it was the Hudson River. That’s not how I always pictured the Hudson River.
But the Hudson is like that for its northern half, rapid and tumbling in the mountains, then winding through the hills, until just north of Albany. There already it hits sea level, and the tide reaches that far north, so from Albany south the Hudson is essentially a tidal estuary, and the southward flow of its water is in a constant back-and-forth with the rising and falling tide.
Then between Newburgh and West Point the estuary becomes a fjord, like in Scandinavia, a sunken valley reaching inland from the sea, and the water begins to get salty already at Peekskill. Is the Tappan Zee a river or a sea? Where does the river end and the sea begin?
Why this illustration? A couple years ago, one of you asked me the question why God doesn’t speak to us anymore like in Bible days. A very good question. And my answer is that in Bible days God spoke to us like the upper Hudson and in post-Biblical days like the lower Hudson.
In the Old Testament and up through Jesus, God spoke rarely but directly, like a small swift river, clear and definite, and then after Jesus, God speaks to us like the lower Hudson, with its mixing of waters back-and-forth, and you can’t tell where God’s voice ends and our own minds begin.
Look, in our First Reading, God spoke directly to little Samuel. What God said to little Samuel was one thing, and what Samuel thought about it was another. There was no mixing. And when Samuel reported it to old Eli he recited it, word for word.
But in the Gospel we see the Lord Jesus beginning something else, setting up a new way of God speaking, the way of conversation. He gathers a group of companions, who will engage in conversation, and it’s in the conversation that God will speak, in the back-and-forth, in the mixing of God’s word and our own thoughts, so thoroughly mixed that you can’t tell where God’s voice ends and your own thoughts begin.
Do you want God to talk to you? Maybe not. God might tell you something that will tingle your ears and keep you awake all night. But if you do want God to talk to you, then you have to become a companion in the community of Jesus and join the conversation. Not just the easy conversation at coffee hour, but the conversation with the Lord Jesus at the center, who says, “Follow me,” which for us means “Follow me into the Bible,” and as you follow his stories and follow his teachings and talk about it all together, then God will speak to you.
It will be God, although you can never neatly distinguish God’s voice from your own thoughts or separate God’s voice from the back-and-forth of dialogue, and though it will not be the clear, sharp voice of a mountain stream, it will be God’s voice. That’s the way that Our Lord Jesus began to set it up with his companions.
It is worth contrasting to our sister religion of Islam. The Holy Koran is absolutely a recitation, word for word, from the single voice of the angel Gabriel. It is not a conversation, the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not mix one of his own thoughts in. He had companions, who are important in Islam, but they did not contribute to the Holy Koran.
But the Lord Jesus let his companions share in giving the revelation and he speaks to us only through their artfully written-down memories in the gospels and their thoughtful reflections in the epistles. Into this conversation between the four gospels, and them with the epistles, and all of them with the Old Testament, Jesus says to follow him.
This gives us room, and room for us to have our own conversation with the Bible. The Bible is like your lover, not your boss. There is play in your relationship with it. Like with our Gospel. Did you notice the playful banter between Jesus and Nathanael? What’s going on here, we ask?
Why did Nathanael insult the natives of Nazareth? We don’t know. Why did Jesus call him "an Israelite with no guile"? Was he teasing him or giving him credit as a very innocent man? When Jesus said that he had seen him sitting under the fig tree, the natural reading is that Jesus had spotted him along the road as all the pilgrims were heading home to Galilee, and he drew his conclusions about Nathanael from the circumstance. Or did Jesus see him with prophetic sight? We guess the latter but are not told so.
Why does the skeptical Nathanael now suddenly make the improbable leap from rabbi to royalty, that a rabbi should be the promised king of Israel? We are not told. Is this meant by the author to anticipate, at the beginning of his story, the greater leap of Doubting Thomas at the end of the story? And then what does Jesus mean by his very strange image of the angels going up and down to heaven on him? Are we to imagine him stretched out and elongated like he himself is Jacob’s ladder, or does he carry the angels piggyback on the stairway to heaven? What image is this?
The Word of God pushes us off a bit, it makes space in us. It pushes you off a bit so that you can’t get close enough to God for you to have God to yourself, but also to make room for community and to require that community for you to hear God’s voice. This means that one of our missions as a community of Jesus is to offer each other the active space that we can hear God’s voice together. Not some distinct angelic voice, but through the medium of our mixed-up back-and-forth conversation around the word of God.
Your part in this is to host each other’s listening, to make space in your life and in your opinions for you to host other people listening for God. And what I mean by this is not so much that you listen to what they are saying, as that you listen to them listening. Yes, you listen to them listening. In the community of Jesus you are companions who listen to each other listen for God.
We treasure the right to freedom of speech. But more important is your obligation to listen. That’s what love does. I’m thinking about the latest cover cartoon of Charlie Hebdo. In secular terms, the magazine has every right to publish a caricature of the prophet Mohammed. But in Christian terms, I would hesitate. As St. Paul says in our Second Reading, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial.” Freedom of speech has no value if the community is not obliged to listen, always to listen, always to give space to listen. It’s safety of speech as much as freedom of speech. That’s what dictators do not do and what tyrants will not do, they will hear but they will not listen. Freedom of speech is a precious right. The obligation to listen is more precious, but it cannot be enforced, and that’s because it depends on love. It’s an obligation of the community of Jesus.
This community is textured. We have our various roles within it, and I have mine. When I was in third grade, in the St. John’s Lutheran School over on Myrtle Avenue, I was Samuel in a school play, and so my mother made me a yarmulka and a robe, and I had to say, “Speak Lord, for your servant heareth.” That's what I do all week when I prepare my sermons. And in my preparations, when I listen for God to speak, I don’t wait for a distinctly heavenly voice, but I depend on God to speak through my using the tools of historical and literary analysis, and from my thinking about you all and the give-and-take of what you need to hear.
Tomorrow night is our consistory meeting. Our job is to discern God’s will for our congregation. We cannot and we should not try to separate that from the all-mixed-up experience of our church.
Neither should you in your own life. You hear the lessons and the sermon and you use your head to apply it to the give-and-take of your own life. God’s voice in you will not be clear and direct, but rising and falling and mixed-up in your thoughts and conversation. So I want you to listen to the listening of others as you all deal with these strange stories from the Bible. In their very strangeness is their freshness and their room.
What is God up to, since Jesus, to speak in this indirect communal way? God’s mission is to turn you into a certain kind of people, a people less passive than the old priest Eli, waiting for God to say what God will say, and more like Samuel, ready to get up and answer with your lives, and more like Nathanael, making leaps beyond your certainty.
"Come and see." See what? You won’t know till you see it.
"Follow me." Where? You won’t know till you follow.
Follow him into your own life, but not your life as self-contained and independent, rather your own life within a community who listen to each other listening. That takes love. God speaks this way that to hear it requires that you practice love.
Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.