Transfiguration Sunday, March 6, 2011
While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Matthew 17:5
Listening–really deeply, actively listening–is hard work. In our multi-tasking, overly busy, harried and hurried world it is the rare thing to really sit down and practice active and/or reflective listening.
Try to talk with someone deeply engaged in viewing a sporting event on television. You could read the entire Sermon on the Mount, and that person might not even realize you are in the same room. Talk to your teen about chores, and the selective listening is likely to kick right in. Have you ever sat in a church council or committee meeting and zoned right out, your mind wandering to your to-do list or an issue at work or home? Of course, there is always the temptation to enter the conversation before the other party even finishes his or her thought. You probably know the feeling; your mind races ahead to construct an answer, neurons firing and popping while the other party is still trying to finish a sentence.
Yes, listening is hard work, and we humans are prone to jump to doing what feels more productive just like dear Peter in the story of the Transfiguration. You know the story, right? It rolls around in each lectionary cycle around this time of year. In 2011, we get the recounting of the story from chapter 17 of Matthew’s gospel. While there are many ways to look at this text and plenty of sermon options, I want to focus on what verse five contributes to the story and to the lives of congregations and the individuals who comprise them.
It is a classic case of trying to fill silence with words, of feeling uncomfortable in the presence of the holy and needing somehow to safely and securely wrap the moment in words. There is no space for holy silence and wonder, as dear Peter plunges ahead with a well-intentioned building plan. In true human fashion, he wants to DO something, anything.
Human nature has not changed. We still feel the need to “do,” to plan programs, to conduct studies, to hold forums, and form focus groups. Action, in our minds, is somehow inextricably linked to productivity and success. In congregations we echo Peter’s words “Lord, it is good to be here,” and then we immediately follow them with grandiose and enthusiastic plans for new buildings, renovations and additions, enhanced ministries, a plethora of programs to suit every taste, and the most dreaded action item in all of Christendom–the survey that goes nowhere.
Plans and actions are not bad things; they are necessary and important components of change and growth. The problem comes about when we rush to fill the space with them, when we put “doing” ahead of “being”–when we allow a “worker bee” mentality to buzz ahead of the Holy Spirit’s leading.
While we probably will not have a bright cloud overshadow our church buildings or receive a spoken divine directive like Peter and his fellow disciples did on the mountain, God does still speak to us. What we need to do is to learn how to listen, both actively and reflectively. Active listening is part of good stewardship. It is a way of being attentive to one another and of caring for the blessings with which we have been entrusted.
So how might a congregation embark upon listening to Jesus and seeking God’s will? The place to begin is in prayer. Why not commit to a season of prayer? Lent and Advent offer two excellent seasons for reflection and preparation. Once you have committed to a period of prayer and discernment, simply begin to listen to one another. Have someone in the congregation help teach active listening skills and create opportunities for small groups to gather informally to talk and listen. Consider venues for larger congregational forums. Allow for people to speak in the assembly. Take careful notes of what is spoken and heard, and do not merely file the data away.
In some ways active listening is much more dangerous than knee jerk or unilateral action. When we listen to one another, really hearing each other’s thoughts, ideas, hopes, and dreams life is not the same. Real action follows the listening, and it might not be the kind of action we envisioned or find comfortable. When we actively listen, we make space at the table and in our heart for the other. Most importantly, we make space for the Divine to work among us and in us.
The good news is that stepping into new space need not be terrifying nor something we avoid. Jesus didn’t leave Peter, James, and John trembling on the ground. He came to them, offered healing touch, and told them to “Get up and do not be afraid.” We are not alone. We are strengthened in one another’s company, and we have the promise that wherever two or more are gathered (and hopefully listening!) Jesus is there, as well. So listen up, disciples! One never knows what wonders you will hear.
Here’s a lovely version of Mercy Me’s song “Word of God Speak” with compelling visual imagery. This would make a good invitation to prayer or even a different kind of gradual. If nothing else, I commend it to you for your own personal devotions and meditation.
Visit the Taft University link above to learn about active listening. Try some listening games with your youth. You’ll find some ideas here. Teaching teens active listening skills is an important way to build relationships and trust within your youth group and provide youth with a valuable life skill. Ask them how they can actively listen for Jesus.
Give children the examples from the Old Testament reading (Exodus 24:12-18) and the gospel (Matthew 17:1-9) of how God spoke to people in the Bible. Help children understand that God still speaks to us today. Teach them a listening prayer, and play the one minute game. See if the ENTIRE congregation can be quiet and listen to God for one minute. End with a brief prayer of thanksgiving for all the many ways God speaks to us today.