Sunday, October 19, 2014

todays sermon - a failure to listen

Exodus 33:12-23
Matthew 22:15-22

               “Just listen”.  These are words we hear said, they are words we do say, often when we are simply in disagreement with another person.  And there is truth in them.  Sometimes when we are sure our opinion is right, we simply cannot hear any other view point.  When we know what we believe, we don’t bother to put ourselves in another’s position to hear how they see things or view things.  When we are certain we are right, why would be take the time to try to understand an opposing view?  Why would we even bother to listen?   I know I am guilty of failing to listen or seriously consider a differing view point at times, even when I try to be open-minded.  There are certain ideas that simply won’t get a hearing when run by me.  We simply fail to listen at times. 
I want to show you a clip from the children’s movie “Brave”.  It involves a mother and her daughter, each processing through a conversation they’ve had with one another that did not go well.  –
               This is a familiar conversation, I think, that parents and teens experience.  Each has their own view point, and they either truly don’t listen to one another, or they are accused of not listening because they continue in their own opinions even when they do.  But as with the movie, Brave, in which the entire plot is centered around both the mother and daughter’s failures to listen, to respect or to try to understand the opposing views, similarly, when we fail to listen, fail to hear, we tear rips in our relationships with others, we block true intimacy by blocking our ability to truly understand one another.  We can learn to disagree while still listening and helping others know that we hear and understand them, but this takes work, it takes effort.  And most of the time I think we simply choose not to really listen.
               So then when we look at the scriptures lessons for today, we can relate to the conversations that we hear, first between Moses and God, and second between Jesus and the Pharisees.  In the Exodus passage, God promises Moses that he will go with him to help him lead the people.  But Moses either doesn’t listen or doesn’t trust what God is saying.  Because right after God has promised, “I’ll go myself and I’ll help you,” Moses jumps in with “If you won’t go ….”  .  And even after God promises to do exactly what Moses has asked again, Moses pushes, “Well, show me your presence.”  He pushes and pushes, not hearing what God is agreeing to do, and failing to trust what God is saying.
               Then we come to the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees.  The Pharisees’ question to Jesus about taxes is one in a long line of questions that they have asked him with the purpose of entrapping Jesus.  They know that if Jesus answers that they shouldn’t pay this tax, he will be accused of sedition.  They also know that if he says that they should pay the taxes, he will enrage many of his followers on religious grounds because he will be going against the religious laws.  They ask him a question that they believe he can’t win as they try to undermine him in any way they can.  They continually ask him questions, this one just being the last in a series, whose sole purpose is to discredit him with the people.  But the point here is that they are so focused on trying to knock him down, that they, too, are unable to listen, unable to hear what he is telling them again and again, with every sentence, with every statement, with everything that he does.  They have an agenda, and nothing will dissuade them from that.  Their ears are simply closed to any new information, to any new vision, to anything that might challenge or change the mission they have set for themselves to discredit Jesus.
               It would seem every effort God made to get Moses to listen was met with resistance.  And it seems that nothing Jesus did could help the Pharisees to hear.  What helps us to hear?  When we are entrenched in our opinions and our beliefs to the point where we are unable to listen, to be open EVEN to God’s movement or message among us, what moves us from that place to one of hearing? 
Sometimes, someone says something that can catch us in a way that nothing else has.  I am reminded of the movie, “The Color of Fear” which was a documentary about a weekend retreat for men on the subject of racial prejudice.  Men of all backgrounds and ethnicities came to participate in this conversation about racial prejudice.  They made a commitment to be open in their conversations, to trust one another, to explore the topic of racial prejudice.  But there was one white man who quickly became the center of the conversation.  He kept insisting that there was no longer any racial prejudice and that the men who were sharing their experiences of racial prejudice, were in fact, just blaming others for their problems.  Some of the men of color, having heard these accusations, left the conversation saying that it was not their job to change this man, that his ignorance made him not worth their time.  But most of the men stayed with the white man, sharing stories, telling of their own experiences.  They stayed steadfast in their commitment to justice, and their commitment to care for this one man, even in the face of his anger, his denial, his rudeness, his accusations and his blame.  They calmly and consistently shared their stories with him while he continued to say that they were hurt, ignored, passed over, and much, much worse because of their flaws, not because of prejudice.  But despite their care, despite their calm and simply presence, despite the stories they told again and again, this man simply could not hear them.  And nothing they did was impacting that block to listening.  Finally, towards the end of the weekend, the leader of the retreat turned to this white man and said, “What would it mean for you if the stories you are hearing are true?  What would it mean for you if we really have experienced the racial prejudice, hatred and discrimination that we are sharing with you?”
This question caught the man off guard.  He became very quiet, for the first time all weekend as he reflected on these words.  Finally, he said, very slowly, very quietly, “It would mean that the world is not as beautiful as I need to believe that it is.”  He began to cry as he continued, “and it would mean that I was part of the problem.” For this man, a question helped him to listen.  He was caught by a moment that surprised him.
But we know that sometimes it takes even more for people to learn how to listen.  Sometimes it takes “hitting bottom” for us to be able to hear, to listen and to change.   We know that this is true with people with addictions.  Often a person cannot make the choice to hear what others are telling him or her about having an addiction and needing to do something about it until he or she has hit some kind of bottom – become so ill they have to change, or lose their jobs, or lose a relationship.  The same is true for all of us who are stuck in a place where we are unwilling to listen, even when what we might learn could make our lives better, more full.  In the movie, “Brave” which has the clip I showed at the beginning, it took a trauma that threatened to destroy their family for both mother and daughter to finally listen and hear one another.  It literally would have been the end of life for the mother if she had not listened, and the daughter would have lost her mom if she had not listened.  While it is a story, a movie, it reflects the truth that listening is HARD.  And sometimes we just would rather not do it.
There is life in the listening.  There is healing in listening.  There is depth in being willing to strive for understanding of another view point.  For Moses, listening to God would have created in him a sense of peace, comfort, dimmed the anxiety, given him a strength in continuing even when the people turned against him at times.  Eventually Moses did listen, despite the challenges that posed for him, and so he was able to fulfill his call to the people, to do the work God gave him to do and to exit in peace.  But it took time, time that could have brought him peace sooner.  For the Pharisees, their failure to listen meant they missed out on God right there with them.  The Pharisees were the legal faith authorities of the day, the legal leaders, the church authorities.  And yet these men, these people who had dedicated their lives to God’s law missed out on God’s presence right there with them.  I can’t think of a greater tragedy for these people than to miss out on the very thing they were striving to be part of their whole lives.  We know that for some, even hitting bottom won’t be enough to help them to change, to grow, to move.
Where, then is the Good News in that?  We see in both of these Biblical stories that God continued to be loving and faithful, even when the people wouldn’t listen.  God remained faithful to Moses, responded to Moses, gave Moses what he wanted, even when Moses was challenging God, even when Moses was unwilling to listen.  God remained steadfast.  The tender compassion that God has for God’s children continued no matter what.   Jesus similarly does not refuse to talk to the Pharisees.  He does not ignore their question even.  He stays engaged with them, even in his anger, even as he realizes that he is being set up.  He continues to be present and he continues to try to show them a better way.  He speaks to them in a manner they don’t expect, turning the question around  in a way that might, just might, jar them into actually hearing him.  He says, give to God what is God and to Caesar what is Caesars.  And he leaves it to THEM to figure out what that means.  He tries to engage their higher thinking and their higher listening for a deeper answer.  What does it mean?  Caesar’s face is on the coin, but ultimately doesn’t everything, including Caesar, belong to God?  Jesus throws it back as a question, as a challenge for the Pharisees.  What really belongs to God?  What really belongs to Caesar?  Who is ultimately the one in charge of everything? 

This passage is not meant to answer the question of taxes for us.  Instead, it is a story about who Jesus is, and therefore about who God is.  It tells us that even in those hard questions, those things we struggle to understand, God chooses to be present with us.  It tells us that we are called to think through things by listening with open ears.  It calls us to be present and to engage further with our questions, our thoughts, our hopes, our doubts, and ultimately all that we are.  To listen.  And when we can’t listen, to rest in the love of a very patient and very present God who will wait for us to be able to listen, and will still be talking when we are able to open our ears.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Other People's Stories

For a few months now I've been attending our local "Warrior's Journey Home" group.  It is a group for vets who have served in any of our wars, and for those people who care about their experiences and want to be there to support them.  The vets who come do so in order to talk through their experiences, not with a professional, but just to be able to speak what they went through, what they continue to go through, as a result of their time serving, in the presence of people who will listen, care, and intentionally love and support them without judgment.  It is an awe-inspiring experience to be honored with their stories, with their trust, with their feelings about what they experienced and continue to experience as a result of their time spent in military service.  Everyone in the circle can share, can speak, without others offering advice or trying to "fix" them or argue or even discuss what has been said.  The rest of us are there to listen, and we take on that role with an awareness of the amazing gift it is to us to be included in their sharing.  Often even the people who have not served in a war share.  They share the experiences they've had with other vets.  Or they share how they have been impacted by the stories they are hearing.  Or they share something they have read or learned about what it is to serve in a war.  Their stories, experiences, thoughts, are also gifts to the rest of us who are present to listen.

But I realized last night as I listened that I have never once shared or spoken in this circle, except during the initial check in and the ending check out where we simply look one another in the eye and promise to be present in that place.

The people who know me know that it is not because I have nothing to say.  It is hard to get me to shut up in other situations.  I have opinions, and thoughts, and feelings about almost everything.  But as I sat there last night, I realized that I don't speak in that group because I am truly, deeply awed by what the people in that room have been through, what they have suffered, what many of them continue to suffer (because of PTSD, war injuries, etc.).  I say nothing because I am aware, during that time, in that space, that the traumas and tragedies I have experienced in my life time are so small and insignificant in comparison to what these vets have gone through.  I have not gone through what they have, so what is there for me to possibly say in that space?  I can only listen, and care, and support them by listening as they process through their histories.

Today I went to visit one of my parishioners who is very ill.  She was lying in her bed, as she is transitioning towards death, and she made the comment that she can not imagine going through everything that I have experienced.  She said that she feels she has nothing to say when she looks back at her life and compares it to what I have been through.  She named some of her own tragedies - divorce, loss of a second, beloved husband to death, the physical pain she sometimes now experiences as cancer takes over her body. But she felt that these experiences were small and insignificant when compared with the challenges I have faced.

As I listened to her I found myself wanting to argue with her.  "No!  Your experiences are every bit as significant!  They are your life - your journey, your lessons, your blessings, your gifts, your challenges, your opportunities to grow and learn and move and respond to what life has given you. Your experiences are different, but they are not less meaningful or less important.  We cannot compare suffering (or joy!) in this way, or somehow discount the things we have gone through as trivial simply because they are different and have impacted us differently."

And then as I found myself speaking these words, I remembered last night.  Ah.

Whatever the stories of other people, I am deeply blessed to hear them.  Whatever the struggles and traumas, or amazing wonderful experiences others have gone through or are going through, I see it as an awesome honor to listen, to be brought in on their journeys, to be trusted with those stories and to be welcomed into their thoughts and feelings.

But their stories really are about them.  They aren't about me.  They aren't invitations for me to compare my life and find it wanting or shallow - either in joys or in struggles.  They aren't judgments or condemnations that say my life has lacked courage or strength.  And when I find myself focusing on my own life in comparison, I am failing to listen and be fully present with them in that moment.

So for today, I accept my life for what it is.  And I continue to be grateful for what others choose to share with me.  I will endeavor to listen better, to be present more fully.  For that is my call in those moments.

Yesterday's sermon - Winning Points by Being Mean?

Exodus 32:1-14
Matthew 22:1-14
Matthew 21:33-46
As I read through today’s passages, I was struck with the idea that sometimes people think that in being mean to other people or catty behind their backs, or expressing hate towards some people, somehow we end up more united with others.  We can “bond” over our criticisms of others, bond over our hatred of others, connect with some people by making someone else a common enemy.  I look at this passage from Exodus in which the people have been led out of slavery by Moses, have come to him for food and water and God, through Moses, has provided.  Moses has done an amazing work through this people and as we read the scriptures we recognize the great leadership of Moses.  And yet, when Moses goes off for a time to pray, to recuperate, to reconnect with God, the people take the opportunity of his absence to bond with one another AGAINST him.  They wanted him to be everything for them, they wanted him to be perfect, to have infinite energy for them, to not need time away.  They wanted him to lead them into the promised land, into comfort, maybe even into a kind of luxury.  He can’t do that first because he is a human being and second because it isn’t God’s time yet, there are other things that must happen before they are led into the promised land.  But for all these reasons, for his failure to give them everything they want and because he has taken some time away, the people feel he has failed them and they quickly turn against him.  “As for this man, Moses, we don’t have a CLUE what has happened to him. …so make for us gods who can lead us, instead.”  And his brother, Aaron, did NOT defend him, but joined them, doing what they asked him to do, my guess is so that he could remain a part of them, too, bonded together AGAINST his own brother, Moses.
It was not only that they bonded with each other in their criticism and rejection of Moses, they also somehow believed that in that criticism and rejection of someone else, they would get MORE, that this would enable them to walk away with something BETTER than what they would have had had they stuck with Moses and had they continued to follow in God’s way.  They thought that instead of this human person, Moses, they could get gods who would then lead them, made from the rings and gold objects that the people had.  Gods had to be better than Moses, right?  Moses had led them out of slavery.  Moses had made sure they had food and water.  But it wasn’t enough.  They wanted more.  They wanted MORE.  And it was easy to vilify Moses, to critique him, thinking that this would then get them something MORE.
Then we come to the gospel passages.  And in the first one we read of people invited to a wedding party who felt they had better things to do.  But again, they didn’t simply say “No, we don’t want to come”.  They joined together, grabbed the servants who had invited them to the party, abused them and killed them.  And we have to ask, what were they thinking?  Did they really believe there would be no consequence for this behavior?  That the king who invited them wouldn’t get angry and seek retribution for their killing of his servants?  But again, they seemed to believe that they would be closer to each other, more bonded with one another and maybe even somehow “get more” as they developed a common enemy.
In the second gospel passage I read for today it is even clearer that this is what is going on.  When the servants come to collect what is owed to the landowner, they kill the servants.  So the landowner sends more servants whom they also kill.  When the son comes they say to each other, “This is the heir.  Come on, let’s kill him and we’ll have his inheritance.”  What kind of thinking is that?  That somehow if you kill all those the landowner cares about that he will then leave to YOU everything he has?!  From a distance, from our perspective, we can see that this is absolutely crazy thinking.  We can see clearly that those with that kind of thinking won’t survive long enough to inherit ANYTHING, but will be utterly destroyed by the landowner.  We see this, from the safe distance of reading about it in a story.  But what about in our own lives?
In our own personal lives, don’t we put down and criticize and condemn and sometimes even seek to destroy, at least emotionally, some people to other people?  And as we join together in criticizing other people, don’t we somehow feel more connected to those we are talking to?  Don’t we somehow believe that if we share a common critique against other people that we will be closer and more united with those with whom we share that criticism?  Don’t we sometimes even create friendships, build relationships over common complaints against someone else?  Sometimes I think we even believe that we will be more fully or thoroughly respected by those with whom we are bonding when we have a common critique of someone else, a common judgment, and especially a common enemy. 
Years ago now I was over at a friend’s house when he received a call from a mutual friend.  His response in seeing who the call was from, “Oh no.  Not again!  These people are always calling us.  I’m just going to ignore it.”  His wife joined in on the conversation and critique, “Yeah.  We ignore their calls a lot but they don't  seem to get the message!”  They looked to me for me to support and to join in on this conversation, to support them in not responding to the call or to share a story of my own about receiving annoying calls from them.  And again, perhaps the thinking was that we would then have this “bond” over being annoyed by these other friends. But I found myself instead very upset by their comments.  I found myself wondering, and asking of them, when my friend doesn’t respond right away to my calls then is it because he is feeling the same way towards me?  Annoyed?  Bothered?  Is this couple having this same conversation about me behind my back when I reach out?  Of course they were quick to tell me, “Oh no!  That’s different!” But that conversation rang in my head from then on when a an email or a phone call was not answered by this couple.
I have another friend who, when I am with her, is often criticizing her best friend, complaining about her best friend.  I get that my friend may need to work out some of her annoyance or anxiety at times with her best friend.  But again, whenever she does this, whenever she criticizes her best friend, I cannot help but wonder what she is saying about ME, who is not nearly as close to her, when I am not around. 
How many of you receive forwarded emails that express hatred towards groups of people? Christians are called to be “known by our love” but sometimes even the most well-meaning people seem to get caught up in hating behavior and my sense is that this is easier to do when they feel bonded with others in a crusade, even when it is a crusade of judgment or hatred.  Jesus is very clear that we are not supposed to judge and that instead we are called to love even our enemies.  Jesus is very clear that we will be known by our love.  And the hate behavior of people who say they are Christian, especially when their hating is done in the NAME of God, tends to do absolutely the opposite of what they intend.  It does not win friends or convince people.  It loses them respect.  Unfortunately, it also encourages people to lose respect for Christianity on the whole.  They are not spreading the Good News with this behavior.  They are not demonstrating a belief in a loving God who embraces the outcast, heals the wounded, and calls us to do the same.  They are turning people against Jesus, while missing Jesus’ message of love completely.
Not that any of us are completely beyond this behavior of trying to bond with one another by critiquing others.  While on the women’s retreat this weekend, I kept receiving phone calls from my someone who knew I was on the retreat and yet continued to demand my attention and I was quick to criticize him to the women I was with.  We do this.  Critiquing others gives us something to talk about.  Critiquing others gives us something to complain about.  Being critical gives us a chance to “vent”. Critiquing others helps us to think through what we believe about certain issues or behaviors so that we can act differently, and behave according to our true principles and values.
But behaving that way is also, ultimately, against what God would have us do.  When we are critiquing others, we are failing to remember that Jesus said it was the one without sin who is called to cast the stones and that is not one of us.  We are failing to remember that it is God’s own children we are criticizing since we are all God’s children.  When we are bonding in our animosity towards anyone else, we are failing to love our enemies.  And I think we have to ask how God must feel about that. 
The people I trust the most and the people I respect the most tend to be those who choose not to engage in this kind of behavior.  They are those who when I am catty, gently remind me that I am not supposed to be judgmental and that it isn't helpful to be negative anyway. When they refuse to gossip negatively about others, I am less concerned about them doing the same to me.  But also when they act in loving ways towards all people, it is much easier to respect them as people truly doing their best to follow in Jesus’ way. 

The Good News in this remains that when we fail to be faithful, when we do choose to be critical, God still is with us, God still provides.  In the Exodus story, while God was angry that the people had forsaken both Moses and God, God did not loose wrath on the people but still loved them, still provided for them, still cared for them.  The Good News also is that this God who loves us is ultimately the judge as well as the one who offers us grace.  It isn’t up to us to judge.  It isn’t up to us to critique.  But when we fail to remember that, even then, the choice of who deserves critique is up to God and not us.  We are freed.  Freed to love.  Freed to live in God’s grace.  Freed to be known as Christians, by the love that God calls us to exhibit.  Thanks be to God.