I was blessed to be invited on August 20, 2015 to lead worship at the famous and historic First Reformed Church of Albany. This is the second oldest congregation in New York State and it was fun to preach in their pulpit bought by 25 beaver pelts from Holland. I decided to use my time in a place of so much history to reflect on one of the most important and transformative roles we might live into as those of “historic mainline” congregations today….the role of listening. The Scripture readings were from the Song of Solomon 2: 8-13 and James 1: 17-27
Today’s readings are from two of the lesser used books of the Bible. The Song of Solomon and the Letter of James, or the Epistle of James. Both are relatively short, and both contain controversy.
The Song of Solomon is considered by some to be too “racy” to be included in the Bible. Images of two lovers, details of their encounters with each other, sensual descriptions of love. The Letter of James was famously referred to by the reformer Martin Luther as an “epistle of straw,” mostly because Luther (and others) wanted to argue that faith saves us, and not our “works”. It is an age-old debate and I would suggest, probably not as black and white as some theologians on both sides of the argument have made it out to be.
So why, on this last Sunday of summer, read and reflect on these two passages, from these two somewhat controversial Books of the Bible?
And where do these two different books of the Bible fit together?
What I’d like to suggest today is that they come together around the theme of listening.
In the Song of Solomon the two lovers listen to each other. One is able to identify that their love is on the other side of the wall because they hear the voice of the other. The passage for today starts with this short sentence, “The voice of my beloved!” Not the sight of my beloved. But the voice! Identification comes through hearing! Is there a voice of someone in your life, maybe your beloved or maybe just someone you love, and the sound of their voice is a cherished sound? You hear it before you see the person. And you react to it before anything else?
Not just people but animals react to the sounds of those who are most loved and cherished. In the movie from years ago, March of the Penguins, as Morgan Freeman narrates it, he carefully explains that as the one penguin in the mating pair leaves before the one and only egg that is produced in a season hatches, that during that time the mate and the other talk to each other, over and over and over again. And when the penguins return, after the baby penguin is born, and brings food back, the way they find each other is through the sound of their voices. Hundred of penguins are huddled together, all looking identical—and it is the voice, the listening that allows them to be reunited—a matter of life or death. And the cycle repeats year after year.
“The voice of my beloved” says Scripture to us today—“Arise my love, my fair one, and come away.”
The sacredness of love, the intensity, the singularity, the individuality, the perfection of love. Poetry in the Song of Solomon to describe some of our deepest ways of connecting and knowing another person, perhaps even another part of the creation, maybe even understanding some of the mystery of the Divine.
“Arise, my love, my fair one….and come away….”
James offers another view about listening. His instructions are clear:
Be quick to listen.
Be a “doer” of the Word, but not merely a “hearer” who deceives him or herself.
If you do not listen, you “forget what you are like”
Do not be a hearer who forgets, but a doer who acts.
And what is the only religious practice James calls us to? Care of the least of these, the widows, the orphans (who in his time were those who were forgotten) and to stay “unstained by the world.” A living testament and response to the God of love.
I wonder to myself—about the importance of listening.
As we listen we figure out what is really going on with someone. Those who suffer the most in our world today do so for so many reasons, but their suffering is most amplified because no one is listening to them any longer. There is a reason James raises the case of orphans and widows—they were those cursed in his time with being “invisible”, “un-listened to.”
Studies show that prisoners remanded to solitary confinement have changes to the chemistry of their brains after as little as 72 hours, because of what they are experiencing—or rather not experiencing: human connection. No wonder solitary confinement is defined as torture by so many countries! And there are many outside of jail who also suffer in this way—the incredible suffering of isolation.
James’ letter is all about this. About not forgetting, not deceiving ourselves that we are somehow doing enough or “the right thing”, and finding ways to be committed wholeheartedly to God’s original calling—justice.
How often do those of us with the greatest privilege in our own culture of such deep separation of various groups of people intentionally place ourselves in the position to listen intently to someone who is radically different than ourselves, to really hear what they are saying, and to understand their reality and allow our actions to be transformed into real, true and lasting action for justice by this listening? So often we want to “do”, to go and “build something” for “those poor people” on a mission trip.
But what about mission that is just listening?
As North Americans most of us wouldn’t think we accomplished anything. But we also live in one of the cultures in the world where listening is among our most ignored activities. This lack of listening leads to an ignorance around the needs for justice, and I would argue—this lack of generations of deep listening, intentional separating of people one from the other has landed us in the place we are today where xenophobia and racism are not just par for the course—but acceptable ways of behavior.
As one theologian writes, “these smalls acts [listening] are the nuts and bolts of daily life, holding together scaffold on which we build community and the social order.”
I would argue that true listening as James invites us to engage it—listening for the sake of justice-filled action, is not a small act—but it might just be the greatest and most prophetic act we can take in this divided and hate-saturated time we live in today. Listening, real listening has the power to transform us into discipleship in Jesus Christ—which can only be filled with real and not paternalistic, justice.
How often do we take the time to really listen to God? Maybe the reason we avoid listening well to others is because we are terrified of the transformation that the listening might invite into our own lives. Or terrified by what God might do with us next?
A few weeks ago I listened to a conversation between three #BlackLivesMatter activists, among them a member of the clergy. The language in that conversation and the conversation itself was not the sort of language those of us in mostly white, “mainline” churches are used to hearing. But it needs to be heard. The reason people are on the streets of our country is because we have failed to listen!
I wondered to myself, as a white person, as a leader in the church—what risk would I take among my peers if I invited a group of us to just listen to that conversation, watch it in a meeting and discuss it for example?
The truth is, I know I’d face retaliation in some circles of my work.
Isn’t that one of the reasons that sometimes we do not say what we are really thinking, and trust others enough to listen? We are fearful, and sometimes most fearful in our own “tribes.” Nearly all of the Epistles, the letters after the Gospels in the New Testament are written to people like you and me, insiders. There is a reason for this—transformation, a return to the justice God seeks—we have to embody it first in our own communities if we can ever dream of attempting to engage with it in communities we have long ignored!
Let me close with a story that comes to me from a friend of mine who works in New York City and spends much of her time on the subway. She related the story that one day she was on the train and a homeless man was in the car alongside her and other commuters. He was talking and asking for help. No one was listening, everyone was turning away from him. Finally she got up and went over to the man, sat down next to him and talked with him. He burst into tears, “It’s like I’m invisible!” he yelled in pain and anger, “It’s like no one even notices me.” A deep well of hurt and pain, almost unbearable to bear witness to. She said she wrapped her arms around him and held him in a hug. She said to him, “I notice you.” He sobbed in her arms, all because she offered him the gift of a listening ear—a reminder that he is not alone.
As one who aspires to be a lover of God—who have you failed to listen to?
Who can you listen more deeply to?
In trust how can you allow your life to be transformed?
In discipleship how can your commitment to God’s justice be renewed?
Where are the wells of deep pain and isolation that you notice in our communities today—and how can listening be a place of transformation not for “those places” out there but for you?
As an agent of the living Christ in our world today—how can you live out the radical message of Jesus without fear and with abandonment born out of love?
Because as in the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “You may be the only Gospel someone reads” (and I would say, experiences…through your listening and then prayerful action-filled responses)
Arise, my love, my fair one….and come away, calls the One who listens to us….
Arise, my love, my fair one…and come away….