“How Do We Listen?” Mark 9:2-9
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
Rev. Sean Weston
In the fall of 2005, reports came out that then-U.S. President George W. Bush had said that God told him to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, as part of a broader plan to bring peace to the Middle East.
Just a few days ago, a former U.S. Representative declined to run for a Senate seat in Minnesota, because in her own words, she didn’t hear a call from God to do so.
I came to serve as this church’s pastor because I felt God was telling me to.
I like to think the same is the case for you.
Christians often talk about God telling us to do something, or God calling us to do something. But what do we really mean when we say that? After all, and I don’t say this to be demeaning, I have some pretty serious doubts that President Bush heard God correctly – and to say there were serious consequences for what I believe was a mis-heard message is to understate things quite a bit. You’ll find Christians who strongly believe that God has told them to reject those of us like me who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Then you’ll find Christians in Open and Affirming churches like this one, who will say God has called them to wholeheartedly embrace LGBTQ people. The list goes on, and on, and on. I know there have been times in my life where I don’t seem to have gotten the main point right.
Either God is saying way different things to different people, or we people aren’t so great at listening.
In defense of us people, God has a frustrating habit of not speaking directly, with notable exceptions such as the story we heard in Mark’s gospel this morning. It’s a remarkable story, this “transfiguration.” Jesus takes some of his disciples, Peter and James and John, up a high mountain. Jesus is transfigured before their very eyes and becomes dazzlingly bright. THEN, Moses and Elijah show up. Then, a cloud appears, and a voice from God comes directly from the cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
It’s a remarkable story. It’s packed with all kinds of details and tidbits and references and I could spend all day just following a single trail. But what caught my attention this time around was that God spoke directly to Peter and James and John, and told them to listen to Jesus.
I admit, I’m sometimes jealous of Peter and James and John, on top of this mountain, getting a glimpse of God’s very being, hearing directly from God that this Jesus is God’s Son, that this Jesus is to be listened to. After all, I have to imagine that in the back of their minds they always wondered if they had made a mistake dropping everything to follow this Jesus, wondered if they had heard God’s call right. Here they have confirmation that they’re on the right path, confirmation far clearer and far more direct than most of us will ever receive.
Then I remember that for them, to listen to Jesus would mean to follow him to his execution on a cross. Jesus had just told them that before they headed up the mountain. It would mean putting themselves in grave personal danger, and losing any sense of security they may have once had. After all, sometimes God tells us to do things we don’t really want to do. In those moments we may rather cover our ears and pretend not to hear. In those moments, a voice from a cloud may not be welcome.
Listening to Jesus is not for the faint of heart. Listening to Jesus is probably not going to make you friends in high places, or pad your bank account, or grow your business, or whatever else the so-called preachers on TV will tell you. Listening to Jesus is probably not going to make your life more simple and secure. No, if the Bible is any indication, listening to Jesus is going to put you places you’ve never been before, with people you may not particularly like, in situations outside your comfort zone.
There are days that I would rather hear any voice other than Jesus’ voice telling me to do something I don’t want to do. But there are some days – not as many as I wish – but enough, where I remember that trying to listen to this Jesus is worth it, because just like Peter and James and John, I’ve seen glimpses of amazing things when Jesus is around:
- A 6’6” man stooping to his knees to serve Communion to a child
- Church members bringing food each evening to a newly widowed woman who lived alone.
- People of all ages and races and sexual orientations gathered to worship and receive God’s healing
- Christians speaking and marching against racism
- A deeply conflicted church body erupting in spontaneous confession before sharing Communion with one another
- Leaders making decisions not out of fear but out of faith, believing that God’s goodness will see us through.
I might not have seen Christ himself dazzling bright, I may not have heard God’s voice in a cloud on a mountaintop, but I’ve seen enough to tell me that hard as it is, listening to this Jesus is worth it.
Even so, it’s hard to do: how do we listen so that the voice we hear is Jesus’ and not simply our own? Everyone relates to God so differently, so I can’t give a one-size-fits-all answer. But let me make some suggestions:
- Be open. Remember that God tends to show up in unexpected ways.
- Praying looks different for everyone. For me, it mostly means asking God a whole lot of questions as I move through my day. A lot of questions.
- Be familiar with the Jesus story. Know, in your own words, what you think he did, what he was about, what his values were.
- Paying attention to your life – I mean, really paying attention, not just wandering about. How are you feeling? What burning questions won’t go away? What is bringing you joy? What is bringing you down?
- Pay attention to the world around you: Who are the people around you? What do they struggle with? What might they need? What might your obligations be to one another? Where is there suffering and pain? Are you hurting someone – intentionally or not? Are you quietly allowing hurt to continue? What is going on in the community, the nation, the world?
If you do these things, you’re likely to hear some themes emerging. You might even hear Jesus’ voice loud and clear. But make sure you don’t stop there.
- Finally: Test things out in community. Talk to others that you trust, hear their questions. You may have heard something very clear, but once you talk to someone you trust, realize you were missing something big. In the end, we can’t listen to Jesus alone. We need one another. It helps avoid mess-ups.
To review: Be open. Pray. Know the Jesus story. Pay attention to your life, and to the world around you. Test things in community.
You may be thinking: that’s all well and good, but what’s that look like in real life? As one of my friends says, “what’s that look like on a Tuesday?”
Well, as I was writing this sermon, I found myself scrolling through my newsfeed on facebook. It’s a common sermon prep tactic for me. Then I saw a post by someone named Laurie Vial that intrigued me.
Laurie lives in Champaign and is the Executive Director of the Illinois Conference of Churches. As part of the United Church of Christ, Lyonsville is related to the ICC. I’ve known her for years, because for a while I was the President of a similar organization in Kansas. Laurie is also, as you may have guessed, descended from the Vials that founded this church.
I saw a brand new post from her about buses that the Conference of Churches is chartering to attend a rally to end racism on the National Mall in Washington, DC, on April 4th – the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. This rally is the beginning of a huge anti-racism push by the National Council of Churches together with countless diverse faith partners: Jewish, Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox, Protestant and more. The bus will leave in the evening one day and return in the early morning two days later, so most people only need to miss one day of work. Last but not least, one of the buses is leaving from La Grange.
So I started getting a ridiculous idea in my head, that maybe while I was writing a sermon about listening to Jesus, Jesus was telling me to take a group from Lyonsville to this rally. I kept batting it away – “come on, Sean, you’ve got enough on your plate, this sort of thing may be outside their comfort zone, do you really want to suggest it on your second Sunday?” Race is such a tough conversation, is now really the time?” “Come on, Sean, these are busy people, do you really want to suggest doing yet another thing?”
But as I typed out my suggestions for listening to Jesus, I realized: I’ve been trying to keep open. I’ve been praying a whole lot. I think I’m pretty familiar with the Jesus story. I’ve been paying attention to myself and the world. And from what I can tell, racism is rearing its ugly head strongly right now. Everything I know about Jesus tells me that racism is deeply sinful. Fighting racism has long been a passion of mine, and I’ve felt without direction for that passion in a while. And I’ve seen some incredible things when people step out of their comfort zones for things like this: growth in bravery, in faith, in knowledge of God – not just for those that go but for the churches they go back to.
This wasn’t really in my plan, and I like my plan, but I grudgingly decided to take this through the last step: testing in community. I’m before you, Lyonsville, telling you that I’ve been trying to listen to Jesus, and I think Jesus might be inviting us to send a group on a bus to Washington DC to fight racism alongside people of faith across the country. I think Jesus may have gotten my attention through a descendant of your church’s founding family whose facebook post I happened to see when writing a sermon.
I could be wrong, and I say this seriously. Maybe this isn’t Jesus’ voice – maybe it’s just my own. Maybe there are good reasons I haven’t considered that make this a bad idea. If you come to that conclusion, I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll be okay. I’ll still love you. I’ll still present you with opportunities to fight racism.
Beloveds in Christ, what do you think Jesus is saying? I hope you let me know.
This, I believe, is how we follow the command voiced on that mountain long ago. This is how we listen.