Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sermon for January 17, 2010: "Listen. Do you want to know a secret?"

Matthew 21: 23-32

Brett Favre, starting quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings, may play in his last game for what seems to be the 50th time in his career today. He can't seem to retire in the literal sense of the word. Any news related to the National Football League over the past 3 years has expelled a significant portion of its wind to whether Brett Favre will retire. It is for moments such as these like today's game that a football player lives. On the biggest sporting stage that American sports can offer, Favre will have the attention of his coaches, his teammates, tens of thousands of screaming fans in the Metrodome in Minneapolis, numerous analysts sitting in multimillion dollar sets in television and radio studios hanging on his words and actions, and fans all over the world will be paying attention to what Brett Favre does on the field and what he says to accompany those actions. You don't even have to like Brett Favre--even the people who hate Favre and spit on his image will be listening and watching what Favre says and does. People may end up talking about Favre's words and actions for decades to come.

No wonder he doesn't want to retire. Being heard and watched to the degree Favre is examined would be challenging to relinquish. Many athletes struggle to retire for that reason. No one really listens anymore once the jersey is removed. I'm sure Favre will struggle with retirement once again after the end of his season.

I enjoy being heard. For all of the terror associated with weekly public speaking on the matters of life, death, grace, forgiveness, love, God and the cosmos, there is a feeling of exhilaration in preaching. People are actually listening. My thoughts, prayers and reflections actually matter to people, and then in some ways, I am better understood. I think preachers also struggle to retire. There is an allure to being heard--and losing that state of living, where one is heard on a weekly basis for so many years, becomes a threat to one's own existence. Though the desire for status is universal and a great roadblock to change in life--one thing I notice about social networking sites, blogs, public figures and in any social interaction is that though status-seeking drives the success of these sites or in simple human interaction, the underlying human need behind the social posturing is to be heard.

To be heard is a matter of survival. For some it is literal. A baby needs to be heard and people must respond for that child to live. People who survived the initial stages of the earthquake catastrophe in Haiti, but buried in rubble, their survival hinged upon being heard by a rescuer. It is hard to take human focus off of being heard, when so much is at stake. Being heard is part of our social well being as well as physical. People who are not heard can end up suffering isolation, depression and sometimes be driven to suicide, hoping that in their final act, they will be heard.

This essential part of our humanity--to be heard--and once we are heard--can be quite intoxicating. The problem ends up being that the ONLY goal in life is to be heard--and our society looks quite intoxicated right now. It appears that the only relevant state of being is to be heard. The problem with so many people working hard to be heard, one thinks that the only way to be heard in the crowd is to speak as often or as loudly as possible. Talk radio and talk TV lineups feature screamer after yeller after screamer after yeller. Preachers have followed the same logic over the years. In order to be heard--there has to be some yelling (so the logic goes). Parenting has become a similar enterprise with the quest to be heard. I recently read a New York Times article that faced with limited methods (at least related to old-fashioned parenting techniques), parents have turned to shouting as a leading method to be heard. One thing that I have learned is that the more I shout, the less my children eventually listen.

Jesus in his wisdom knew about the human desire to be heard. I think the desire to be heard is a cousin to a desire for status. The interesting thing about Jesus' critique of both leaders and followers in Matthew 21 is that he doesn't give people public speaking techniques. Jesus doesn't tell his followers to get louder. He doesn't teach them rhetoric. He doesn't teach them marketing or public relations. Jesus uses this story in Matthew 21 to let his followers know that what it means to live in connection with God requires listening. Listening to God means obedience. According to Jesus, listening to God means change, especially when people are generally focused more on being heard than listening.

Listening can change the world. While I have placed countless hours of energy trying to be heard, Jesus says that truly listening to God is linked to change. Listening to God models listening to others. This is a leap, because I catch myself being intoxicated by being heard on a macro level, but also on the micro level. I've caught myself worrying more about what I am going to say next than listening to the person with whom I am having a conversation. The intense desire to be heard juxtaposed with the dearth of listening can even be seen in public discourse related to relief efforts in Haiti. There's plenty of energy surrounding what is being said by President Obama, Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh, but I suppose it is a lot easier to concern myself with what is said by those folks and by me, rather than listening to those who are suffering.

In anxious times, what often comes to the forefront is not listening, but more people trying to be heard because they are anxious. The world can be changed by listening. God changed the world for Moses and his people by first hearing their suffering and letting Israel and Egypt know that God's people were heard.

On a practical level, as First Lutheran Community Church faces significant budget challenges and concerns over future pastoral leadership. It is certainly more alluring to offer theories as to why things are the way they are. The world we live in can be changed by listening. How do we listen to God? One of my favorite professors from Luther Seminary, Dr. Pat Keifert, says that we tend to think that prayer is the time that we get God to listen to us. Actually, prayer is the time God gets us to listen to God.

Bertel Thorvaldsen was a famous Danish sculptor known for his massive depiction of Jesus, the original appearing at Vor Frue's Kirke (Church of Our Lady) in Copenhagen, and with copies all over the world. The story attached to this sculpture notes the forward tilted head of Jesus, which was not the original intent of Thorvaldsen. Apparently, as the carving of the head took place, Thorvaldsen and his assistant miscalculated the carving and drying of the sculpture--a massive undertaking considering that sculpture was more than twice the size of an average human. The sculptors returned to their work the next morning to find that Jesus' head had tilted downward. The assistant thought this was a major failure of the piece and that months and months of work had been for naught. Thorvaldsen reassured his assistant that this was actually how Jesus should be depicted. The only way one could see the eyes of Jesus in this sculpture is to be on one's knees in prayer. It is true--the only way to get a clear glimpse of Jesus' face at Vor Frue's Kirke is to be kneeling at the altar rail.

For the world to change, the people of God need to be changed. The people of God cannot be changed as we make our way serving our God on this earth through placing all of our energy on what we say and attempt to be heard and asserting our own authority. If we seek for the situation in Haiti to change, we need to pray. If we seek the situation with the church's budget and congregational resources to change, we need to pray. It's not necessarily that we are taking to God our Christmas list and hoping to receive gifts, but that in listening, we are changed by the Jesus who changed our lives because he was obedient to the point of death on a cross. We are changed in our words, changed in our attitudes, and changed in our actions. In that change, we become the face of Jesus in a world where that face is needed among the suffering.

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