Tag Archive | listening

Obedience gives Freedom?

This is part four of my reflection on Walter Brueggemann’s Finally Comes the Poet.*  You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.  While the parts relate to one another, they can be taken separately, so it’s not necessary to read the other posts as a prerequisite to this.

imageOBEDIENCE is a nasty word.  We like to be in control of our lives, of our destiny.  No one likes to be told what to do.  Our life of faith, however, IS a life of obedience – of listening, paying attention to the One who has called us to life.  “In the Bible, obedience takes the form of listening.  The obedient life is one in which Israel listens, attends to, and responds to the voice of God”(p. 81).  Most of what WE call listening is really just being quiet as we form our next sentence and wait to speak it.  Real listening is hard.  And listening for the purpose of obedience is even harder.  Our culture pushes against it.   Again, we like to be the ones in control.  “The preacher, in speaking about obedience, speaks against our modern ways of knowing and controlling.  [It] violates the way we think and know and believe in our culture”(p. 82).

The other reason listening is difficult for us is because we are “greedy children of disproportion, caught in an ideology of acquisitiveness”(p. 82).  That’s a mouthful.  Brueggemann explains, “…social good, social access, and social power are not equally distributed.  Some have too little.  Some have too much.  That some have too much is intimately related to the fact that some have too little….  This economic reality among us impinges on our capacity to hear and respond when we are addressed by God’s voice of command”(p. 82).  We are socialized to always want more and to rigorously protect what we have, so as not to lose it.  This requires a lot of energy on our part.  This energy, this desire to constantly acquire, makes us restless and anxious.

This greed pits us against one another, because it impacts on our ability to make sure that everyone has enough.  Our current political climate reeks with the arguments of those who “have much” not wanting to give anything to make sure that those who “have nothing” can have a little more.  The rich see the poor as lazy and undeserving of more, while the poor see the rich as hoarders (of money, power and opportunity) and themselves as stuck.  Both of these groups of people fill the pews – sometimes even together.  “The congregation addressed by the preacher is thus a strange assembly.  It includes those who guard the disproportion as benefactors.  It also includes those who suffer from the disproportion as victims”(p. 84).   How do we encourage listening when speaking of obedience, knowing it is problematic for all who gather in this “strange assembly?”

Pointing-Blame-Finger pointing isn’t helpful and actually discourages real conversation and listening.  What is perceived as a command, “YOU MUST DO THIS!” only serves to have folks “dig in” and shut down, a pushback against losing control.  Brueggemann reflects, “I have found myself discovering that mostly I do not need more advice, but strength, I do not need new information, but the courage, freedom, and authorization to act on what I already have been given in the gospel”(p.84).  I think what Brueggemann is trying to say here is that rather than having the preacher stand in the pulpit, point a finger and say, “This is what you SHOULD do!” it is more constructive, more conducive to listening, more empowering to say, “This is what you CAN do through God who strengthens you!”

Preachers are to extend an invitation to imagine a life beyond the restlessness and greed, beyond the disproportion.  Both the hoarders and those in want come seeking hope that God has provided a better way.  Because left to their own devices, without the listening that forms obedience, both groups (ALL of us) will die.  Those trapped in restless greed will work themselves to death, not realizing it’s NOT the acquiring of things that will give them peace.  Those who have “too little” will die from neglect.  In the gospel we hear that God is freeing us from that bondage!  When we are able to listen and understand that this is God’s Will for us to be freed from our restlessness and our greed, into a life that has much deeper meaning, we are joyfully and willingly obedient.

Since I used the word bondage above, I will take the time to point out that bondage and willing obedience are NOT the same thing.  Bondage is a forced obedience – the obedience of a slave or prisoner.  Willing obedience is listening, attending and responding to that which we trust will give us peace.  Brueggemann asserts that this call to obedience is rooted in baptism – “Baptism that renounces the old ways of death and embraces a new life,” and, “all our talking and listening is out of baptism and into baptism.  We are a people that is every day summoned to die ‘to the vain glories of the world,’ and to be raised to new life”(p. 85-86).

Brueggemann then takes a look at two of the Ten Commandments (only for space/time constraints, NOT because they other eight don’t apply!).  His treatment of Sabbath and coveting are wonderful, but rather than focus on his always impeccable scholarship, I want to focus on the grander theme of the Commandments as they relate to obedience.  So many times people look at the Commandments as prohibitions, plain and simple.  “THOU SHALT NOT.”  They sound so authoritative, so stifling!  When viewed that way, they certainly are.  God becomes big brother.  Obedience is an oppressive burden in such a mindset.  But when we think of the Commandments as rules that bring order, peace and harmony to our relationships with God and one another, then obedience can become something we desire.

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The Commandments create a community in which our priorities regarding the importance of divine and human things are well defined, where there is balance between work and rest, and where there is a culture of respect and honor between neighbors.  We respect and honor our neighbor’s very lives, their spouses, property and reputations.  We respect and honor our parents and our spouses.  And because we not only HAVE neighbors, but ARE neighbors – OUR lives and property and reputations are respected and honored, and our spouses and children honor and respect US.  We love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind, and love our neighbors as ourselves(Matthew 22: 34-41).  What freedom this obedience gives – the freedom for our neighbors thrive, and for us to thrive as well!

questions to ponder:

  • What can I do to contain my greed so that I am less afraid/restless and can live more freely?
  • How does serving my neighbor help me fight my greed?
  • What are some guidelines that help us distinguish between obedience and bondage?
  • Does my view of the Ten Commandments change when I see them as rules that create freedom instead of simply things I “can’t do”?

 

*Finally Comes the Poet:  Daring Speech for Proclamation.  Walter Brueggemann, Augsburg Fortress:  Minneapolis, 1989.

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5th Sunday after Pentecost, 2014

5th Sunday after Pentecost, year A, 2014 (preached July 13, 2014)

first reading:  Isaiah 55:1-13

Psalm 65

second reading:  Romans 8:1-11

gospel reading:  Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23


Jesus told the crowd a parable.  The first thing he said was, “Listen.”

He probably gave them a few moments to shush each other.  With no modern convenience like a microphone he also probably had to talk pretty loudly too.  “Listen!”

I wonder if it was as hard for folks in Jesus’ day to really listen, as it is for us now.  So many times we mistake being quiet and waiting our turn to talk, for listening.  Listening requires not just being quiet while we formulate what WE want to say in return, real listening means focusing on what the other person is saying.

So Jesus tells the crowd to listen – tells us to listen.

A farmer went out to plant.  He threw the seeds all over the place – on all different kinds of ground.  This farmer must have had an overabundance of seed, because he didn’t seem to care where he threw it – he had no concern of running out.

Some seeds fell on the path, some on rocky ground, some among thorns, and some on good soil.  The seeds grow, or not, depending upon the kind of soil in which they took root.  In some places there is no yield whatsoever, in others there is a great harvest.

Most of us hear this parable and are immediately concerned with what kind of soil WE are.  What kind of person am I?  Am I the right kind?  Do I make the right response?  Am I bearing fruit?  Are we rocky, thorny or good?  What will happen to me if I’m rocky soil?

Let me reassure you, if you’re concerned about your soil, if you CARE what kind you are, then you’re good.  Your caring means that you’re concerned about your response to God’s Word, your caring means you WANT to be receptive to the Word in your life.

Put aside any worries you might have had about the quality of the soil that is you – because this is NOT what this parable is really about.

Jesus does NOT call this parable the parable of the soil.  He calls it the parable of the SOWER.  The soil is not the main focus, the soil and the yield are all secondary to the first action of the SOWER.

The true focus of this parable, according to Jesus, is not us (you know, “it’s” not always about us) but GOD.  In the parable as Jesus tells it, the focus is on the sower who spreads the seeds around with such freedom that NO ground is missed.

So what if seed is wasted – the point is to cover every bit of ground, and that the sower has NO concern about running out of seed.  The picture Jesus paints for us is of the sower’s outrageous generosity.  The seed is going all over the place – the Word is for everyone.

“Let anyone with ears listen!”  There’s that “listening” again.  I guess Jesus REALLY wants us to pay attention.

The focus is on the lavishness of the One who gives the Word of the Kingdom to ALL people.  The sower is God, who spreads the seed of the gospel to EVERY person – whether they be rocky, thorny or “good.”

Here’s another reason not to worry about what kind of soil you are – are you rocky?  The Word is for you.  Are you thorny?  The Word is for you too.  And even if you’re good, the Word is for you.  We may even be different types of soil at different times of our lives – but no matter, the Word is for each of us.  It’s God’s action in sowing the Word for the world that matters here.

If we focus on our response, or on our “yield” first, then it’s like putting the cart before the horse.  Everything starts with God – nothing grows without the sower first sowing the seed.

The parable is about the amazing and miraculous work that GOD does in spreading the seed out, and NOT our attempts at putting God’s Word into action.  What a wonderful message this is!  What a perfect image the parable of the sower gives us of God.  The seed as Word – Jesus the Word, spread for each and every one of us.

This parable tells us that there is no one beyond God’s love.  No one is beyond God’s reach, because God is not stingy with the Word – God tosses those seeds everywhere!

It’s outrageous – how careless this sower is with the seeds.  But, it’s not really careless – it’s a sign of the diligence of the sower that he doesn’t want ANY ground left uncovered.  It doesn’t matter what kind of ground you are – you’ll get the seed!  This is God, not taking the chance that any of us will be missed.

Jesus tells us God’s love reaches so far and so deep, that there is no one he will turn away.  The sower doesn’t say, “Oh, that ground over there looks so bad, nothing could grow there.  Why waste the seed over there.”  Nope, he throws the seed down.  The sower even throws it on the PATH, which is really no soil at all, just hard, packed down ground.

Jesus tells us this parable to highlight just how far God goes to make sure we’re included.

So, if we ever think there’s a place where the Word of the gospel doesn’t belong – we’re wrong.

You can use your imagination to think of the absolute worst place, a seemingly unredeemable place – and the Word ESPECIALLY belongs there.  You can think of yourself, perhaps even sitting here in worship, as the worst, most unlovable person in the WORLD and Jesus still says “This is my body given for you.”

NO ONE is excluded.  God’s love is for everyone.  God’s Word is for everyone.  God’s salvation is for everyone – everyone.

“Let anyone with ears listen!”

AMEN.

The Transfiguration of our Lord, 2014

The Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord, year A, 2014 (preached March 2, 2014)

First reading: Exodus 24:12-18

Psalm 2

Second Reading: 2 Peter 1:16-21

Gospel Reading:  Matthew 17:1-9

Today is the last Sunday before we begin Lent – just a few days before we receive ashes and remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

In the Lutheran tradition we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration – a glorious event to hold in contrast with the somber events directly ahead of us.  Today we are given an image VERY far removed from ash.  When we think of ashes, we think of gray or black – but today we are presented with “dazzling white.”

The definition of “transfigure” is:  to transform into something more beautiful or elevated.  I’ve thought about that a lot this week.  In my husband’s congregation an elderly woman who has been dear to us entered inpatient hospice care on Monday.  She never married and has no children, so she named me Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy, so I’ve been spending A LOT of time with her.

During this time she has been sleeping mostly, with brief moments of lucidity.  As I’ve been signing all kinds of forms, speaking with doctors and nurses and social workers, doing her banking, sorting through her things, I’ve had this image in my mind – to transform into something more beautiful or elevated.

And I’ve been struck by two things – that the disciples were told to both “listen” and keep quiet.  Well, actually Jesus told them to “tell no one,” but keep quiet is a pretty good summation.

In our culture we spend a lot of time running around and DOING things.  We’re busy people.  We fill all our moments up so quickly and time races by.

This week I’ve been struck by the contrast between the running around I’ve had to do for my friend, and the absolute stillness of her, and me sitting with her.

This is what Jesus calls us to do I think.  This is part of the meaning of the Transfiguration.

Sure, it’s all about the lofty theological things too:  showing Jesus’ glory, connecting him with the Old Testament prophets, the continuity of faith, foreshadowing the crucifixion – but it’s also about THE VOICE telling us to “listen” and keep quiet.  To STOP what we’re doing and PAY ATTENTION to God and to what’s going on around us.

Because even in the Church we can get so busy that we forget to sit and listen for God – to keep quiet and let God speak, or let the silence speak for itself.

Peter, being Peter, thought the moment required a building project, yet another way to keep busy – but he was literally CUT OFF by THE VOICE telling him to LISTEN.

God wants to transfigure the meaning of “listening” in our lives, from something that WASTES our time, to something that makes our time more BEAUTIFUL.

It’s hard to listen, really listen.  Oftentimes when we “think” we’re listening we’re just being quiet and formulating what we want to say next.  The other person is talking but we’ve already moved on to our next point.  Sure, we may HEAR them, but hearing and listening are two different things.

“Hearing” is sound, “listening” requires work.  We may hear a siren go by.  Listening means we wonder where that siren is going and say a prayer.

We may hear a wave crashing at the beach.  Listening means being filled with wonder at the immensity of God’s creation.

Hearing is the sound coming out of our mouths when we sing a hymn.  Listening is paying attention to those words and letting their meaning fill our heart.

Hearing is the annoying sound the water bubbles make in the oxygen port coming out of the wall that is helping someone breathe.  Listening is realizing that those bubbles also sound like the water of a stream gently rolling by.

If the coming season of Lent is a time to reflect on our faith, this this day of Transfiguration is a good time to reflect on how we LISTEN in our faith.

How do you listen for God in your life?  How do you listen to those around you?  How do you listen to LIFE?

That last statement’s a bit strange I know, but it’s a part of faith too.  How many of us are SO busy that life just flies by?  So many times we get so wrapped up in stuff that we miss the moments that are precious and all too fleeting.

Transfiguration_by_Feofan_Grek_from_Spaso-Preobrazhensky_Cathedral_in_Pereslavl-Zalessky_(15th_c,_Tretyakov_gallery).jpegAs Christ was transfigured, his love also transfigures us.  His love makes us more beautiful than we could ever hope to be on our own.  His love transfigures us from folks that have to keep doing, keep performing, keep proving ourselves, to people who are loved JUST FOR BEING.

That’s right.  We have nothing to prove to God.  There is nothing we CAN prove to God.  In fact, Jesus went to the cross precisely because there is nothing WE can DO.

I’m no fool.  I know we have things in our lives that just have to get done.  But God’s interaction with Peter teaches us a great lesson.  He wanted to get busy and God told him to stop and listen.

We get so little time to listen.  We MAKE so little time to listen.  Yet God tells us listening is SO important in our lives and in our faith.  Peter wasn’t listening and needed God to shush him.

So as we approach the ashes of Wednesday, I hope each of us can think of some ways that we can create a little more “listening” time in our lives.  It may seem like just one more thing on our “to do” list, but the benefits of making that time are SO great.

Listen, so that you can hear the Lord speak guidance, wisdom, love and forgiveness into your life.  Listen, so that you may recognize the Lord in your midst.

AMEN.