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July 06, 2003

“Listening for the Unlikely Prophet” - July 6, 2003

Proper 9, Year B
Ezekiel 2:1-7; Psalm 123; Mark 6:1-6

I often wish God made discernment a little easier. Let’s face it – sometimes it’s hard to hear God’s voice, and to distinguish it from all of the other voices out there – from ego or culture, internalized parents or personal insecurities. Lauren Winner, in her book Girl Meets God, writes of a friend who liked to say, “I wish God would send a burning bush, but I’d settle for a smoldering houseplant!” Where are those spectacular signs we read about in scripture? And where are the prophets to tell us what God needs for us to hear?

You know the prophets – people like Moses or Jeremiah or John the Baptist. They wear flowing robes or hairshirts, and the really cool ones carry something like a huge staff that will turn into a snake when they throw to the ground. They’ve got huge booming voices, and they say things like, “WOE! WOE TO JERUSALEM!” and “REPENT!” It’s easy to tell them from ordinary people. For example: Charlton Heston at his peak – definite prophet material. Woody Allen – I don’t think so. Or in the Harry Potter universe, there’s magisterial, powerful Albus Dumbledore – clearly a prophet – and clumsy Neville Longbottom – clearly not.

It’s kind of a fun game, “spot the prophet.” I used to play it, albeit not consciously, in my own life, with pretty clear rules. It was very easy to do around the parish I went to a few years ago. The rector, Ed – definite prophet. He’s a big man with a big voice and a big library. Obviously important – people part like the Red Sea in front of him when he strides (prophets stride, don’t you think?) into a room. And then on the other end of the spectrum there was Merv.

Merv never missed one of the bible classes I taught at church. Merv was a sweet, sweet man, to be sure. But the class was usually pretty intense and intellectual, and when he made a comment, he invariably broke up the flow of things with something like, “what this verse says to me is that we really should just love each other – that would take care of everything.” He’d say that even when the verse in question was from one of those passages about some wicked person getting slain in a nasty way and turned into dog food. Merv showed up eagerly every Sunday, though, and was always overflowing with things to say to me that were very kind, albeit a little “Precious Moments.” Merv was retired and liked woodworking – he was missing half a finger, and I assumed that he lost it in some kind of accident with a table saw – and one time I remember he gave me a little wooden rabbit he’d made, on which he’d written, “You’re no-bunny ‘til some-bunny loves you.”

Merv was sweet to the point of being saccharine, and I looked down my nose at him with every ounce of youthful hubris and intellectual pride I could muster – which was a lot. He was just so naïve! It was all well and good for him to talk endlessly about sappy drippy love and how it could overcome everything, but clearly this was a guy who had never gotten out in the world to see real pain, real difficulties that can’t just be wished away with Hallmark platitudes. Here was a guy who had absolutely nothing to teach me. Here was the anti-prophet.

That’s what I thought, anyway. So I wasn’t all that thrilled when Merv joined a small group fellowship I was in – the one thing I was doing where I wasn’t leading and had a chance just to learn from others. I was kind of annoyed. Merv talked a lot sometimes, and I wanted to be hearing from prophets, people who knew stuff I didn’t and could teach me.

And then one night in small group, Merv came in angry. Someone in his senior citizens’ community center was saying that the Holocaust never happened, or was greatly exaggerated. And Merv told us why that made him so angry. He lost his finger fighting in World War II. He took part in the first wave of American land invasions across Europe. And one day, he and his buddies came across an airplane hangar in the countryside, and they went inside to see what was there. Nothing they’d heard about, nothing anyone was talking about at home and nothing in the briefings they got, had prepared them for what they saw. The entire hangar, Merv said, was filled with bodies, stacked nearly to the ceiling in places, all the way across the huge structure. Merv had seen the Holocaust in all its unspeakable and incomprehensible horror before it had a name.

That night, for the first time, I was really LISTENING to Merv, and I was deeply and appropriately ashamed. I had been telling myself that I knew Merv, that I knew enough about him to know that I had nothing to gain from listening to him. I thought I knew that if only he had my intellect, my travels, and my experience, he’d know better than to talk about things the way he did. In my pride, I almost missed one of the most powerful testimonies I’ve ever heard, and probably ever will hear. Far from being naïve, Merv had seen the worst humankind has to offer, and somehow he had come through it with the deepest faith I’ve ever seen in God’s love and in the power that love has to transform our world when we embrace it. He was a spiritual giant, and I sinned grievously against him. Ezekiel’s harsh words to the impudent and stubborn who refuse to hear spoke against me that day.

Merv taught me a great deal on that night and on succeeding weeks, and I thank God for humbling me through him. But perhaps you can understand why it was easy for me to dismiss him before then. Jesus was wise to warn us that prophets aren’t respected in their hometown. It can be hard to LISTEN, to “listen with the ear of your heart,” as the Rule of St. Benedict says, to those we think we know, or to those we think we know enough about to dismiss. It’s tempting in our home town to pick out the people we don’t need to listen to – the ones who are too mousey, too stuck-up, too liberal, too conservative, too gay, too closed-minded, too superficial, too abrasive. It’s hard to think of your child as a prophet, or your parent, or your neighbor. It’s tempting to divide the world into discrete categories: people we can learn from on one hand, and people who need our help, on the other. But we take a terrible risk if we don’t listen, and listen deeply, whenever we can.

There’s a legend about a rabbinic school whose leader was told by an angel that the Messiah would visit them. This rabbi was overjoyed and much encouraged – for years, the school had been withering, with fewer and fewer students, while the ones who were remained became more and more unhappy. But they were going to be honored with a visit from the Messiah! The angel said that the Messiah would be disguised and might already be among them, so the community would need to listen carefully to find out who the blessed visitor was. The rabbi thought long and hard about who it might be, and called others in to ask their opinion of whether it was one of those among them, and if so, who. Students were asked for their thoughts, their stories – everyone was eager to see whether one of them might be the one they were waiting for. Once everyone was listening, it seemed that each one had some gift, some goodness, that would make that person a candidate. Each also had moments of pettiness that raised doubts and kept the community’s eyes peeled for other possible candidates. Someone suggested that it might even be the woman who did the washing for them community, or the cook, or the beggar who asked for help. And the search went on. They never identified who it was, the story goes, but the school grew as it never had before – not only in size, but in joyfulness and prayerfulness and sincere love for each other and for God. The reason was that in the community’s wondering who was the Messiah among them, they became a listening community, a family of brothers and sisters who took time and care to hear each other’s stories, thoughts, and dreams, who treated every person they saw, no matter how humble, as they would treat the wisest teacher, the most honored guest, the Messiah.

St. Martin’s could be this kind of listening community – a community that knows and treasures one another’s stories and eagerly invites others to tell theirs, a community that never assumes we know the whole story, but journeys with one another as the story develops. A community of deep listening is one in which no one need be anxious about being heard, and all of the energy we put into seeking recognition and getting our way is freed up for seeking out and receiving graciously and gratefully all those whose gifts would help us become more fully the Body of Christ, whose stories would help us learn more of the story of God’s redemption of the world.

It takes a substantial investment of time and energy to become a community of deep listening. I’d seen Merv weekly for months without hearing his story. It was only after being in relationship in a small group with him, a group that had covenanted to listen to one another and developed hard-won intimacy, that I got to hear the story I’ll never forget. That’s one reason I hope that many of you will participate in the small groups ministry we’re planning to launch this Fall, that you’ll invest the time and energy it takes to build that kind of community and to share it with others we don’t yet know. We become most fully ourselves, most fully the person God made us to be, in relationship with others. For that reason, we’re not just being generous when we take the time to build relationships in which those powerful and precious stories can be told and heard. When we listen deeply, we can hear Christ’s voice in the stories shared, we can see Christ’s face in the face of our sister or brother. When we listen deeply, we can recognize the hometown prophet in those we are tempted to dismiss because they are too familiar or too strange, because they make us uncomfortable or because we are too comfortable in the relationship as it’s defined to want to go deeper. When we listen deeply to God’s children, we hear the voice of God the Father.

Whether we hear or refuse to hear, as Ezekiel tells us, there is a prophet among us. There’s someone whose story you need to hear for Jesus’ power to be shown in your life, for Jesus to heal you more deeply and free you more fully. I’m not willing to place any bets on who it is; after all, as the church we are living into the vision of the prophet Joel, in which God says,

I will pour out my spirit on ALL flesh;
  your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
  your old men shall dream dreams,
  and your young men shall see visions.
  Even on the male and female slaves,
  in those days, I will pour out my Spirit.

The best advice I can give is to start listening to the person you would least expect to teach you something. Discover your hunger for their story. And it doesn’t hurt to pray, either. There’s a prayer I find particularly helpful, and I’d like for us to pray it together. Please open the red Book of Common Prayer in front of you to page 833, and stand with me to pray the prayer attributed to St. Francis:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is
  hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where
  there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where
  there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where
  there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to
  be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand;
  to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is
  in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we
  are born to eternal life. Amen.

Thanks be to God!

July 6, 2003 in Mark, Ordinary Time, Year B | Permalink

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