again & again, we are called to listen

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 Mark 8:31-9:8⁴  |  Psalm 22:23-31   

The season of Lent invites us to pause, to seek deeper meaning in our lives, to disconnect from the great distractions of our lives, if even for a period of time each day, and to listen.  Learning comes to us throughout our lives.  We often need to try again and again.  We have to keep trying to open our hearts and quiet our minds, to take in what new things God is speaking to us and to recall the best teachings along the journey.  We know it’s not easy; it may be harder as the years go by, but there are still new insights coming our way; there are new truths to be discovered; there is new depth to be plumbed…if only we might listen.  Let us pray, O Holy One, quiet our hearts this day so that we may hear your voice lifting us up, turning us around, directing us towards good and truth and peace and light. Amen.

In our first reading today, we hear the story of Abraham and Sarah.  We’re told that Abram is very old when he hears the voice of God calling out to him, and  I love this part, “Then Abram fell on his face.” It’s such a great image.  He’s shocked because he has just been told that he will have many descendants and he is too stunned even to remain standing.  He hears these words that will change what remaining time he has left.  We’re told he was 99 years old; however, many scholars believe that’s shorthand for, he was very, very, very old, and certainly for that time, to be welcoming a baby into the world.  And, I’m sorry, but poor Sarai/Sarah.  She was going to be doing the truly hard work here.  It’s not easy being a parent at any age, but starting out when you’re older.  I know a little bit about that.  These had to be very difficult things to hear and even more difficult to accept.

In Mark’s Gospel, the disciples too are challenged by what they

hear Jesus say.  They are deeply upset as they hear him tell them that he is going to undergo great suffering and be rejected by the religious leaders of his day and then eventually be killed.  This too is shocking news to take in. Peter is especially upset and he takes Jesus aside and chastises him.  We might imagine the conversation where Peter warns him that he’s not going to gain any followers this way and perhaps Jesus needs to tone things down a little?

We may not be too different from the earlier followers of Jesus.  Like the disciples, we may not always want to hear difficult truths or be challenged about our opinions or how we make sense of the world.  Maybe we get stuck in negative patterns of getting off track or making mistakes in our lives over and over again. As we get older, we all get a little set in our ways, in our beliefs and it’s hard to take in new realities, new truths.  It’s hard to see the world as it is. I have found myself thinking at times, ‘stop the world, I want to get off’.  Our spiritual journeys may also get stuck in a rut.  We try and try but maybe we just feel nothing or maybe we feel the dark night of the soul of which St John of the Cross once wrote.  Most of us know the teachings of Christ’s teachings, but we’re just not sure anymore how to really live them out. However, we don’t need to stay stuck spiritually.  Humility may be needed for us to listen in new ways; a new outlook may be necessary for our transformation. Again and again, we are called to listen— to God and to others.

I recall years ago, I was invited to participate in a large Jewish/Christian dialogue in Boston.  I wish I could remember some of the details of the exchange, but what I do recall is that it was hard to be there and to really listen.  Many of us as Christians were deeply troubled in listening to the pain of our Jewish brothers and sisters and their experiences of anti-semitism, their experiences of life where their traditions were not always honored or respected.  I remember just trying to really hear what they were sharing and not feel compelled to jump in to defend myself or to say, oh but that’s not me.  I just tried to sit and be in my own uncomfortable place so I could hear another person’s story.  If you have ever participated in an anti-racism workshop where participants have shared hard stories of racism, it was  a pretty similar experience.  It wasn’t easy at all, but I learned so much and I hope others who were present did so as well.

We know that listening to hard truths often trouble the waters of our understanding and challenge notions of what is real. For Peter, hearing Jesus foretell his agonizing death and resurrection must have made no sense. Just before this, he had named Jesus “Messiah.” How could the Christ talk like this? Peter wanted to quiet Jesus. Jesus would instead quiet him. At Jesus’ transfiguration, Peter wants to build altars to mark the event. But again, Peter is quieted. He is told to listen. 

The Lenten journey calls us to examine the things in which our hearts are invested. How important is comfort to us? Would we be willing to listen to hard truths and be changed by them even if it proved to be difficult? Or are we committed to the status quo because, though it may be imperfect, it’s at least familiar?

Again and again, we are implored to listen, especially when what we hear is unsettling. Repentance means changing direction. But we have to be open to new ideas, to new truths and we have to be open to the possibility that we may need to go in a new direction. As people of faith, we are not alone. We may be encouraged in the knowledge that the Spirit of God is guiding us to a new path.  There are so many with us on the road seeking, trying to be open, looking for guideposts, so many who are journeying with us. When it’s difficult or uncomfortable, let us remember that our companion God is by our side, despite the difficulties along the way.

    I invite you to recall a time when you received a hard truth which challenged your own long held beliefs. How did you react? What led you to transformation or change? Did the hard truth become less threatening at some point? If so, what changed in you so that you were more open and willing to receive it? What practices allow us to cultivate and sustain a posture of listening?  Consider a time when you have been rebuked—perhaps for speaking up about a difficult issue or naming a hard truth. How did you handle the criticism? Did you respond to the one who criticized your message?  In that situation, did you need to be rebuked, or were you delivering a message that needed to be heard?

                                     Listening To Spirit…

This morning, we are reminded that again and again, we are called to listen. This is part of our invitation as people of faith—to not only speak, pray, and sing, but to listen. And I will be the first to say, listening is hard. From our earliest years on up, we struggle to listen, particularly when we don’t know what we’re listening for or we don’t agree with what we’re hearing. 

So for just a moment, I want to invite you to join me in a moment for listening.  

 I invite you to close your eyes. Rest your feet on the floor beneath you. 

Release any tension you are holding—In your jaw, your neck, your shoulders, your hands, your legs, your feet.

Take a deep breath in and slowly let it out. The Hebrew word for breath (ruach) is the same word for Spirit. So as you breathe, imagine that it is God who is filling up your lungs with energy and love. Trust that God is as close as your very breath. Now I invite you to still your mind. Imagine your mind as a river. Thoughts will drift into view; they always do.

However, instead of holding onto those thoughts, allow yourself to let them float by. And listen. Listen deep. Listen far. Listen wide. Listen. 

The sound of your breath is the sound of the Divine. 

This is a holy space.  Amen.

commentary on mark 8:31-9:8 | By Rev. T. Denise Anderson  

— Rev. T. Denise Anderson, Coordinator for Racial and Intercultural Justice with the Presbyterian Mission Agency,  and former Co-moderator of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA)