conjectural navel gazing; jesus in lint form

Sermon: Listening As An Act of Love

Posted June 8, 2014 @ 9:37am | by Tripp

The story of Pentecost always begins with a sound; the gathering of people and a sound. So often we focus on what is being said at the time in the story and ignore all the listening that takes place.

First, there's a sound.
Second, people hear the sound.
An encounter with the Holy Spirit is predicated on a sound and listening.

I wonder what Peter was thinking that day…with all that noise.

When I read this account from Acts, it’s pretty clear that Peter’s first thought was, “Oh no! Everyone is going to think we’re drunk and it’s only 9:00 in the morning!”

But the Spirit moved and suddenly everyone needed an explanation.
I mean, look at this story.
Look at how many people notice.
Look at the text.
Everyone heard the Spirit.
Not everyone knew what it was,
but everyone heard it.
Everyone.

The story of Pentecost is often told as if the most important thing that happened was the speaking in tongues...that people were empowered to speak. Indeed, it’s important. No doubt.

But first, first, they heard something. They listened.

“People will speak!” we cry out.
Language upon language upon language in an ecstatic bubbling proclamation.
Isn’t that cool?!
Yeah. But...no.
Today, I want us to understand that first there was something worth hearing.
The Spirit of God is worth hearing.

In 2010, Rev. James Forbes (former pastor of Riverside Church in New York City) spoke at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary’s commencement service. The famed Baptist preacher stood in the elevated pulpit of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, IL (a cathedral space just outside of Chicago) and addressed the graduating class and all who had gathered there that day. I was in attendance as a an alum and as local clergy. Dr. Forbes spoke of all the changes in the church but reminded us that it was not just in the church. It was everywhere. He gave us a list of all that was going on, a litany of change and discord. He spoke of it as a time of confusion of languages, of an inability to hear one another, of an inability to be civil and to listen. But, he said, the Holy Spirit is moving.

How do we know? Well, because everything is confusing.

The Spirit is doing a new thing.
The Spirit troubles the water.
God’s Spirit is in the world
and it is up us to learn how to listen for it,
and how to listen to one another.

We have to listen to one another, he said, if there is to be positive, lasting change.

At American Baptist Seminary of the West’s commencement service this year, Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson preached to the students, faculty, and families gathered at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, CA. She spoke of her own discouragement at the present state of affairs in religious vocations. She had a long list of reasons to be discouraged, too. But in a stroke of homiletical skill she turned it all around. Dr. Jackson reminded us that the Spirit is moving, that God is doing a new thing, and that we must have ready hearts and minds to recognize what the Spirit is doing. She has great hope because God does not call people unless God has something for them to do.

We are not alone, O church. We are not alone.

“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”

All of it.
All flesh.
Not some flesh,
the good looking flesh,
the young flesh,
the tanned, toned, muscular flesh;
or those who aren’t drunk at 9:00am flesh,
but all flesh.

A recent Pew research study states that 95% of Americans claim to make their spiritual lives a priority. Let’s look at that statistic and take it seriously for a second. 95% of Americans claim to be spiritual, in-spirited, inspired, filled with God’s own breath. I have to think that the other five percent simply didn’t understand the question.

One of my favorite things about being Christian is that I get to say things like this: It is the last days, just like it was in Peter’s day.

“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”

My friends, it is always the last days.
The Spirit is always poured out.
Praise God for the end times!
Praise God for the Holy Spirit!

She just needs ready hearts to hear her. She needs someone to listen.
She needs someone to take her people seriously.
She needs someone to open their hearts
to the absurd possibility
that God is doing a new thing,
and that this new thing is happening everywhere.

Are we open to the Spirit? Or do we just think everyone is drunk?

The world needs people who are ready to listen. The world needs people who are ready to hear the truth...no matter how challenging the message might be. I believe that we, the church, are being called upon to listen.

Our question about the future of the church needs to change. When we hear “95%,” we need not ask, “How do we get them to listen to us? How do we get them in here?” What the world needs is for us to listen to it, to assume that the Spirit has been poured out upon all people.

What people need is someone who will listen to them as they tell their stories of encountering the divine. We need to listen to them.

Both of the commencement sermons I have mentioned here this morning have been offered in this time of transition and change. Seabury was in the midst of great change. It was graduating its last Masters of Divinity cohort before moving from the campus of Northwestern University to an office park near O’Hare airport, a shared campus in Ohio, and online. Fragmented. Dispersed. And Dr. Forbes asked us to listen, to get out out of our buildings and listen to people in the world. “Join the conversation!” he cried.

Likewise, ABSW as a member school of the Graduate Theological Union is witness to great transition as well. The GTU is increasingly inter-religious in focus. The Christian seminaries are struggling, yes, but the Islamic college is booming and a Hindustani organization has been announced as the newest member of the GTU. They begin teaching classes in the fall. They wanted a place where they too would be heard.

And it’s not only here in California, of course. Pope Francis recently announced that the Vatican will host a prayer service for peace between Christians and Muslims. This will be the first time in history that the Koran will be sung at the vatican. The Pope, I believe, is trying to show us how to listen, how to be open, to take risks, and to hear what others are saying. It very well may be that the pathway to peace assumes a posture of listening to one another.

Listening is an act of love.
It is an activity. You want to do something? Listen.
Do you want to change the world? Open your hearts and minds and listen.

Listen to the Spirit and be unafraid of the new thing that God is doing.

Listening is an act of love, of compassion. The world can feel fragmented. People are lonely...as they always have been. But the need seems more acute these days. Perhaps, you recall the social challenges that were outlined in the book Bowling Alone (2000). A simple example: The number of single-person households is up more than 100% from 1960 to just under 28%.

Think about that. 28% of American households are single-person homes. People live alone.

These are not all young people living alone.
Many of them are our elders.
People do live longer. Many live alone.

Is anyone listening to them?

The invention of social technologies such as Facebook or Snapchat are attempts to address the issue of loneliness. They connect us to one another in surprising ways and people are using these tools to craft new communities, to fashion opportunities to hear and be heard. Social technology is not a youth movement. It’s an attempt to stave off the loneliness, to find new ways of listening to one another.

“and your sons and
daughters shall prophesy,
and your young people shall
see visions
and your old people
dream dreams.”

The Spirit does not usher in a movement for some people.
This is a movement for all people.

Today the world is aflame like that day so long ago.
The Spirit is sounding, the very breath of God is moving out over our own chaos.
And people are talking.
All of them.
All at once.

Tongues of flame leap across the landscape.
They are in twitter feeds and lecture halls.
They are in cafes and along assembly lines.
They are in board meetings and sweatshops.
Young people are casting visions.
Old people are dreaming dreams.

It’s happening all around us.
But is anyone listening?
Are we listening?

I wonder if, like those who challenged Peter that day, we’re more ready to disregard what we hear. We can find any excuse to ignore the holy.

But that is not be our calling.

Open your hearts.
Open your minds.
Rejoice and be glad in what the Spirit is doing in the world around you.
Wisdom shouts in the streets. She stands in the public square.
The Spirit is poured out upon all flesh.

The world is in need of listeners, my friends,
people to offer one another the attention they so desperately need.
People need love, not programs.
People need someone to hear them,
not to tell them what to believe,
not to tell them what to think,
not to tell them anything except,

“I hear you, and I understand.”

Listening is an act of love.  

 
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