Sunday, May 05, 2013

Active Listening--a sermon for Easter 6C

note: worship this morning includes welcoming new members, a baptism, and communion, so this week's sermon is more of a brief meditation...

Rev. Teri Peterson
Active Listening
Acts 16.9-15
5 May 2013, Easter 6C
new members, baptism, communion

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us. 

Listening can be a hard skill to learn. So often we are taught to think first of how we will respond, and we end up listening to someone only halfway, waiting for the word we can grab on to in our rebuttal. Or we look like we’re listening, but we haven’t heard a word. Sometimes people look like they’re not listening—they’re writing or swiping their phone screen or knitting—but keeping their hands busy or taking notes means they’re listening more deeply than they would otherwise. The goal we’re after, though, is active listening—where we are paying attention to what the person is saying without simultaneously formulating our own thoughts. Active Listening implies that you could repeat back, in your own words, what the other person has said.

The words “active listening” also imply some kind of listening that leads to action, which is exactly what we get in today’s story from Acts. Paul listened carefully to the Spirit, then acted. The apostles listened to Paul, then acted. Lydia listened, and responded. Paul and the apostles listened to Lydia, and stayed with her. There’s hearing and acting all over the place.

In Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, the word “hear” is the same word for “obey.” I’ve always loved that because it implies that if you don’t act, you haven’t heard. While the Greek of the New Testament doesn't usually have double meanings, we know that the people spoke both languages so may be drawing on this tenet: to hear is to obey.

How often are we not listening?

Sometimes we are too far away from one another to hear. That’s one of the reasons the worship team has been roping off the back pews—because when we are closer together, we hear one another better, which both improves our singing and builds our community.

Sometimes we are too busy to listen. We get caught up in all the things we have to do and forget that God’s favorite mode of communication is through a still small voice, a whisper we could miss if we aren’t careful. That’s one of the reasons community is so important—we have a group of people around and hopefully at least one of us will get the message, and alert us!—and then we can talk and discern and listen together.

Imagine if Paul had been too busy to sleep at night, or the apostles couldn’t bear to leave their favorite restaurant. Imagine if the apostles protested that they didn’t want to talk to women. Imagine if the women beside the river were spread all along the bank and Lydia had never heard Paul teach. Imagine if she’d said “that’s nice, I have fabric to dye.” Given that Lydia was the first person on the European continent to turn to Christ, if anyone along the way had not listened and acted, our whole story could be very different!

Instead, when the Spirit called them to the water, they heard and obeyed. And then they listened and acted again when the opportunity to celebrate Christ’s presence at the table of hospitality arose through Lydia’s invitation. In this story we see how integrally linked baptism and communion are. At the font, we remember that river that washes away our old self, drinking deep of the hope and new life offered there. And following that stream leads us directly to the table, where we experience God’s grace and hospitality anew, so we are strengthened to offer that hospitality to others.

But nothing happens if we don’t listen—to God and to each other.

May it be so.

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