Wednesday, February 14, 2018

John 21:1-19 "Two Charcoal Fires"

         During a visit long ago to a mental asylum, a visitor asked the Director how he determined whether or not a person should be institutionalized.
         “Well,” said the Director, ”we fill up a bathtub; then we offer a teaspoon, a teacup, and a bucket to the person and ask him or her to empty the bathtub.”
         “Oh, I understand,” said the visitor. “A normal person would use the bucket because it is bigger than the spoon or the teacup.”
         “No,” said the Director, “A normal person would pull the plug.  Now, tell me, do you want a bed by the door or near the window?'
         Normalcy is a relative term – which is probably a good thing depending on how you solved the problem of the bathtub. Now, I am not one to declare someone normal or not, nor am I one to psychoanalyze motives or behaviors.  However, that does not mean that I am not interested in trying to figure out why people do the things they do. 
         I call that focused “people watching,” and I find the disciple Peter a fascinating person to watch – probably because, when all is said and done, he is so like us – with his faults and failures, his nagging guilt, his bold and brash promises coupled with so little follow through, his wishing he had done things differently, and his hope – however small – that somehow, someday, he would be forgiven and restored.
         By the time we meet Peter here in the last chapter of the Gospel of John, he is a man caught between two charcoal fires.  The first fire, of course, had burned brightly against the cold outside the palace house of the High Priest of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.  The High Priest was Caiaphas, and he was overseeing the mock proceedings that found Jesus on trial for his life. 
         It was there in the courtyard that Peter stared intently into the glowing embers of that first charcoal fire, warming his chilled hands, not making eye contact on those three distinct occasions when he denied even knowing who Jesus was or that he – Peter - had any role in the Rabbi’s ministry and mission.  It was then (Remember?) that the rooster broke into the whispered Q&A and crowed three times to punctuate in triplicate Peter’s abysmal failure to love when loving was not easy.  Then Peter ran away.
         At that very moment, the guilt, the depression, the confusion, the fear, the constant drumming in his own head – “loser, loser, loser” – gripped Peter and covered him like a thick blanket and would not let go.  Like all good human beings, of course, Peter immediately began to rationalize his disloyal behavior at that first charcoal fire.  The story he told himself and maybe even began to believe was that the whole situation was unfortunate, but Jesus was dead and buried, and so it was time to shed the past and move on. 
         Then, of course, came Easter – and the empty tomb. A niggling anxiety awakened in Peter because he could not help but wonder what would happen…if.  What if he were to be so unlucky as to run into Jesus?  Would Jesus would hold him accountable for his – what? Lack of loyalty? Lack of friendship? Lack of love? 
         Maybe Peter thought he was safe when he saw the Risen Christ first with a group of followers - in an Upper Room in Jerusalem. Jesus slipped through the locked door, more ghost-like than human perhaps.  Then later they all watched as Thomas insisted upon inspecting Jesus’ nail marks and spear wound.  Why - Jesus had barely looked at him (Peter) and certainly did not single him out.  Logically, one should be able to assume that he was in the clear.
         But try as he might to purge himself, the dark emotions continued to haunt Peter.  And when life becomes confusing and fearful like that, we often try to go back to the way things used to be.  And that is exactly what Peter did. 
         He went home, back to what he knew, back to his own safe harbor.  He and six of the other disciples rented a trawler and went fishing in the familiar Sea of Galilee in the waters they knew like the backs of their hands. 
         I wonder though:  Was Peter really intent on fishing for fish – or was he still fishing for answers?  What have I done?  How will I go on?  Where is the meaning in all of this?
        The seven of them fished all night and caught nothing – neither fish nor answers.  And so they headed to shore.  It was that dream-like time – half way between night and day, the mist and fog playing in the trees silhouetted in the background, and the water slapping gently on the shoreline.
         On the beach, they could see the embers of a charcoal fire burning, and a fellow standing tall, looking somewhat tree-like himself.  He called out to the seven across the water: “ “Did ya catch anything?”  “No,” they shouted back.  The fellow answered in return: “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” 
         And lo and behold, they did – maybe not answers just yet, but certainly fish, 153 of them to be exact (And I wonder who was counting?).  It was only then that one of the disciples recognized the voice and the man and grabbed Peter’s arm.  “It is the Lord,” he gasped. 
         And Peter – as impetuous and spontaneous as ever – leapt out of the boat and slogged his way to the beach, losing one sandal in the muddy sediment, his robe heavy with water, holding him back.  The other six were more circumspect and moored the rented boat before they came ashore hauling the net with them. 
         By that time, the charcoal fire – the second fire – burned brightly.  Jesus deftly fileted a few of the fish, grilled them like a pro, looked at none of the disciples in particular, and simply said, “Come and have breakfast.”  Imagine:  The last supper has become the first breakfast!  And the fish served on gently toasted sesame seed buns tasted better than they ever had before. 
         When the meal was over, Peter found himself staring into this second charcoal fire, perhaps once again warming himself - he in his wet clothes in the chill of the morning.  And it all came roaring back to him – the cold air in the courtyard, the simultaneous heated discussion inside the High Priest’s palace, the three questions, the three denials, the crowing rooster that still haunted Peter’s days.  And the emotions too:  It was like it had happened just yesterday – the fear, the failure, the guilt, loser, loser, loser. 
         However, this time, Peter looked up from the glowing charcoal and made eye contact.  This time he did not run away.  And the saddest eyes in the world stared into eyes filled with such great love.  Perhaps Peter knew that this was the moment.  After the fish were grilled, his moment of grilling would come.  So much had happened between the two charcoal fires. 
         Yet, the bridge between them hung, once again, on three questions – though it surely was an awkward conversation.  After all, this was the first time Peter and Jesus had spoken – just the two of them - since before the first charcoal fire.  And since then, this time, this moment – perhaps always known to be inevitable - had been eating away at Peter.  Maybe Peter had already imagined it many times over – what he would say to Jesus, what Jesus would say to him.  But never in a million years had he expected this.
         “Simon, son of John (That was Peter by his old name), do you love me more than these?” Jesus queried.  Ouch!  As Episcopal priest Rick Morley speculates, “I bet the crowd hushed at this point. Everyone knew Peter had this coming to him. And, everyone loves to see a good fight.”
         “Yes, Master, you know I love you,” Peter responded tentatively.
         Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
             He then asked a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  How awkward is this?
         “Yes, Master, you know I love you.”
         Jesus said, “Shepherd my sheep.”
            Then he said it a third time: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
         Peter was upset that he asked for the third time, “Do you love me?” so he answered, “Master, you know everything there is to know. You’ve got to know that I love you.”
         Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” And then one last time he implored Peter and the other six, and down through the ages his voice echoes to us as well, “Follow me.”
         We follow Jesus not because it is the superior way, or even the only way, or because we are somehow better than everyone else.  We follow Jesus because, for us – gathered here in his church – for us, living our lives in his name gives those lives a meaning greater than ourselves, a meaning they do not have otherwise. 
         And that meaning is grounded in love, in compassion that manifests itself in service and outreach.  Jesus does not call us to do what we do in order to get a first class ticket to heaven.  Our call is not about the hereafter – that will take care of itself. 
         It is about the here and now.  It is about this life and this world that is in such disrepair.  Jesus calls us to do what we do because he knows that we have it within us to change the world for the better and to make a difference in people’s lives.  And, if we choose to do so in his name, he calls us to do it in that community we call the church.
         The church is not a perfect place – and we certainly are not a bunch of perfect people.  We lose our way.  We become caught up in ourselves and in our own needs.  We look inward instead of outward where authentic ministry should be leading us. We convince ourselves that all there is to this discipleship business is having breakfast with Jesus surrounded by like-minded people who look and think and act just like us. 
         You know, reputable Biblical scholars believe that this last chapter of the Gospel of John was really an addendum, an epilogue.  It was added later by someone who realized that there were some loose ends to tie up – mainly having to do with Peter, but also having to do with sending the disciples – and us – out into the world to minister in Christ’s name. 
         And so we have this delightfully vivid tale of a simple breakfast on the beach, a meal that turns first into Peter’s restoration – his own personal resurrection of sorts - and then into a commissioning – a sending forth to follow in the footsteps of the Risen Christ. 
         Religious author Thomas Troeger writes of this ending to the Gospel:  “The epilogue awakens memories of the darkness—the darkness of our hunger, the darkness of our failure to recognize Christ, the darkness of our denial—but at the same time it reminds us that none of this darkness has overcome the light. For the risen Christ still calls, still feeds, still empowers even doubters and deniers for the ministry.”
         If Peter can be rehabilitated, then so can we.  If Peter is called to stand up for and care for the sheep of the world – the unfortunate ones, the marginalized ones, the Dreamers, the war-torn refugees, the ones who haunt the soup kitchens and food pantries – then so are we. 
         No matter where we have been on our journey so far, no matter how far off track we have gone, no matter how many times we have found ourselves in the courtyard with Peter, God gives us a second chance – just like Jesus gave to Peter.  God gives opportunities to try again at those three questions:  Do you love me?  Do you love me?  Do you love me? 
         As Methodist pastor Alyce MacKenzie so poignantly reminds us, Jesus “knows where we live. He stands on the shores of our lives. He stands at our front doors. And when we answer his knock, he has (one final question for us): "Do you love me?" and, if so, "What are you going to do about it?"  Two charcoal fires – and so much happens in between.

 
 

        


          
        
        




Friday, February 9, 2018

Mark 4:35-41 "The Perfect Storm"

         There was a Native American chief on a remote reservation in South Dakota whose tribe asked him if it was going to be a cold winter. He did not want everyone to know he had not the slightest idea how to predict the weather, so he snuck away and called the National Weather Service.
         The forecaster told him, “We are fairly certain that it is going to be a cold winter.” So the chief went back to his Council and confidently told the others to collect a lot of firewood in preparation for a cold winter.
         A few weeks later, the chief called the National Weather Service and asked the forecaster again about the upcoming winter months. This time the forecaster said, “We are more certain now that it is going to be a very cold winter.” So the chief told the tribe to collect even more firewood.
         A few weeks later, as the first snowflakes of the season began to fly, the chief called the forecaster one more time and asked for a final update on the winter weather. The forecaster said, “We are now more certain than ever that this will be one of the coldest winters we have ever had.”
         The chief asked, “How can you be sure?”
         The forecaster replied confidently, “The Indians are collecting firewood like crazy!”
         Weather forecasting has never been a perfect science – not today - and certainly not in first century Palestine when Jesus lived.  Keep that in mind as we join our Rabbi after a long day of preaching, teaching, and healing.  The crowd of well-wishers, caregivers, curiosity-seekers, hangers on, and hope-filled ailing men and women continued to press in upon him, and when all was said and done, he was dog tired. 
         And so Jesus suggested leaving both the shoreline and the crowd behind and embarking on a twilight cruise on the Sea of Galilee, crossing over to the other side for a picnic dinner round a driftwood campfire.  The sky was a rosy red and, after all:  “Red sky in the morning sailors take warning, red sky at night, sailors’ delight.”  And so they set out in the little dinghy with the red paint chipped off the bow.
       Now, the Sea of Galilee is a fresh water lake that sits about 600 feet below sea level making it the lowest lake in the world. It is about fourteen miles long and about seven miles wide and is shaped like a harp. It is known for its unexpected and often turbulent storms.  On a clear night, it should have taken the disciples about three hours to sail or row across the lake.   But this night, of course, turned out to be different. 
         They might have been sailing for an hour – maybe more, maybe less – when the first drops of rain began to fall intermittently as the disciples sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “How Great Thou Art” in two part harmony, interspersed with slightly more bawdy sailor songs.  However, the rain picked up steadily along with the wind until before long you could not hear “Amazing Grace” even when the disciples belted it out with great gusto.
         And then all-of-a-sudden, it hit them.  They were out in the middle of the forever-fickle Sea of Galilee in the teeth of an emergent gale.  Though none of them – not even the fishermen - knew anything about the laws of physics, they all sensed they were in deep trouble.
       After all, if a boat heads directly into a wave that is higher than the boat is long, the boat will almost certainly “pitchpole,” meaning that it goes end over end to its doom. Or, if a wave hits a boat broadside, and if that wave is higher than the boat is wide, the boat will flip and capsize.  If the disciples had seen the movie “A Perfect Storm”, they would have concluded that their boat, like the Andrea Gail, would eventually head into swells so high that it would similarly pitchpole and sink to the bottom of the Sea of Galilee, taking the twelve and Jesus along with it.
         The moment of that horrific realization was also the moment the crew discovered that Jesus was sleeping through the whole nasty adventure, his head resting comfortably on a pillow in the stern of the boat.  Whereas in the Gospel of Matthew, the disciples immediately go down on their knees and pray for deliverance, in Mark’s version of the story, they simply freak out in the chaos.
         They jostle Jesus with a desperate wake-up call that does not say much about either their faith or Jesus’ behavior in the face of such clear and present danger. ““Teacher, doesn’t it matter to you that we are perishing?”   "Hey, we're dying here! Don't you care?
         Jesus, for his part, awakens, and it is this land-lubber who seems unafraid in the midst of the wind and the rain.  He immediately assumes a level of authority so foreign to the disciples that all they could do was try to keep their balance in the wildly pitching boat and just stare at him. With these few choice words, Jesus put the wind in its place and commanded the sea: “Silence!” he shouted above the howling and crashing.  “Be still!”
         Surely the Gospel writer was thinking of one of the ancient psalms of Israel – Psalm 107 to be exact – when he wrote down this tale.  That is the psalm where sailors are facing a storm on the sea, and they “cried out to the LORD in their trouble.” Then the LORD made the storm ‘be still,’ “and the waves of the sea were hushed.”   And so in Mark’s version of this story, after Jesus spoke with such authority, there was a moment of the “great calm”, as the Gospel writer – and the Psalmist - term it.
         And that was also the moment when the disciples pondered the origins of Jesus’ authority. “Who then is this guy?” they asked. That was the moment when they were truly terrified, as the Gospel writer tells us.  Terrified rather than relieved?  Terrified rather than in awe?  Yes, terrified!  Why?  Simply because that was the moment when they realized that their lives were never going to be the same.
         You know, there are endless ways to reflect on this text.  Preachers do have a tendency, however, to look to allegory and give special meaning to the boat along with everything else in the passage.  You have probably heard most – if not all - of such sermons. The bottom line in each of them is that there is far more going on in this story than simply being out with Jesus on a stormy evening.  The boat, the sea:  They all mean something.
         Lutheran pastor Karoline Lewis attacks this allegory approach.  Some of the questions this kind of interpretation raises, she writes, are “What boats are you in at this point in your life? What are the storms that are tossing your life around?
         None of this is necessarily bad (she notes). It’s just that the boat becomes a metaphor for all kinds of things rather than simply what it is -- a traveling vessel. A means by which to get from one place to another. Maybe the boat is simply a boat. Maybe the point is that Jesus is just trying to get us to the other side.”
        And if the boat in the narrative is just a boat and if Jesus is really just trying to get us from one side to the other, then maybe one way to look at this story is that it is about change.  After all, when you come right down to it, most of us would rather just stay put, not step out deeper into the waters of faith, but settle comfortably into where we are right now – in a place, in a job, in a marriage, in a vocation.
         If we are not reveling in our passion, if we are not happy with ourselves - or content with our lot - we have decided – either consciously or unconsciously – that it is probably better to remain in our safe harbors and certainly better not to rock the boat. That seems to be human nature: Go along to get along rather than risking or embracing change.
         However, as Karoline Lewis goes on to suggest, “But it also seems to be the nature of faith. We can’t seem to hear Jesus’ invitation – ‘Let us go across to the other side.’
         How easy it is to stay in our comfort zones; to default to our pet theologies; to remain in what is known, even though that which is known has become unbearable. We would rather ignore the desperate need for change than make the change happen. So we sit. And we wait. For what? The right time?  For someone else to make the first move? (Lewis asks).  Maybe this is why Jesus doesn’t give the disciples any time to think about the trip – ‘On that day … ‘ We would think about it forever. ‘Thinking about it’ is always one of our best excuses,” (she concludes).
         You know, in this passage, we often focus on ourselves as individuals and how, as individuals, we are called to embrace change.  However, since Jesus does not single out a particular disciple in the teeth of the storm and all twelve of them – the whole darn family - are in the boat together, perhaps we should focus less on our own individual lives and more on our life together – as a church family.
         You see, our congregation is facing two instances this year where Jesus has already invited us to get in the boat and come to the other side.  The first instance is reflecting on the role of music in worship and employing someone to help us fulfill our goals in this area.  The second instance is broader, and it is reflecting as a church family on who God is calling us to be as the United Church of Christ in Raymond and just how we are going to live out that calling. 
         When it comes to the first instance, music here in church, I know that we are saddened by the lack of a music anchor, such as Karen was employed to be. 
However, I was excited meeting with the choir last Sunday and realizing that they were not looking on this transition time fearfully but rather saw it as an opportunity to explore different styles of music here in worship and different models for coordinating and directing our music program. 
         During this transition time, in addition to Cherie, Lori, Brenda Olsen, and Craig stepping up to play our hymns and responses, we will have at least one guest pianist and several accomplished musicians with us over the next few weeks.  Cherie will be accompanying an oboist in doing several classical pieces.  We have a guitarist scheduled to come and offer special music on several occasions.  He is very interested in exploring jazz settings for traditional hymns.  Our Adult Choir will be singing on occasion as will our Very Occasional Men’s Choir, and Scott will be playing his trumpet on Easter as he often does. 
         I have encouraged people to put together small groups and ensembles for worship – or singing solos as Lori has so beautifully this morning.  For a real change of pace, I am working out the details to bring the Slukes here.  That is the local ukulele group – who, among many other songs, do gospel music.  We may also be hearing – if only on CD – from our now grown up Youth Choir of several years ago – as well as singing along with some video presentations. 
         My hope is that all of you will approach these musical experiences with the same openness and enthusiasm as the Adult Choir has.  My hope is also that you will not cherry pick your Sundays here and make decisions on attendance based on your unwillingness to leave where you are and travel to the other side to experience a different style of church music and be part of this conversation on music and worship.
         The second instance where Jesus has invited us to contemplate change (that is, leave our safe harbors and venture out to sea) is the challenge to articulate who we are as a church and who we want to be in all the communities of which we are a part.  Call it what you want:  We will be engaging in visioning, strategic planning, mapping out a future, or whatever.  All of these sorts of conversations imply change, moving out of our comfort zone, leaving behind the way church used to be, redefining church, and journeying to places unknown. 
         However, to be successful, these conversations cannot be ones that I as your Pastor have with myself, or your Council has with itself.  Every single one of you is a stakeholder in deciding who and what this church is going to be in the future.  As plans for these conversations emerge, I hope that all of you will feel called to participate in them – to be open to getting in the boat and traveling to the other side. 
         In closing, however, because I do not want to leave you overwhelmed by what will come, let me say two things.  First, as Lutheran pastor David Lose reminds us:  “Here’s the thing:  we may fear encounters with God because we fear being changed, but ignoring these encounters will change us also. There is no choice about whether we’ll be changed, it’s what kind of change, and whether we seek God’s help that it may ultimately prove transformative. “  And so, take the time now to wonder and dream about where you sense “the presence and call of God and what changes this encounter may bring and what is frightening (and even hopeful) about what is coming.”
      And second, ponder these wise words of Episcopal priest Rick Morley:  “It can’t be said enough: God never, ever, ever promises that nothing bad will ever happen. God never promises smooth sailing and blue skies every day. If you think that God promises this, you haven’t read your Bible lately.  What God does promise is that when the world comes crashing down, God is right there with us. Jesus is there with us, in the sinking boat.
         This is an important part of the story: Jesus isn’t elsewhere. He isn’t in some cush-y palace somewhere eating olives and hummus. He is in the boat with the disciples. Sinking.  And then he calms the storm. God is with you (and God is with us in this church). And all you – and we - need is enough faith to get through to the moment when Jesus speaks, “Peace. Be still.”
         That small amount of faith, of course, is essential – but equally important is remembering that the hardest part is getting into the boat in the first place, as Karoline Lewis noted.  Before you can meet Jesus, before you can get to the other side, you just have to get in the boat.


Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Mark 4:1-9 "Listen!"

         Listen!  Jesus spoke to the crowd that had been persistently following him for a while now, and the Gospel writer of Mark tells us that he met them once again the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee – just as he had done in the passage we read last week.  However, this time it was necessary for Jesus to actually get into a boat – so much were the men and women gathered there pressing close to him, hanging on his every word. 
         So – in your mind’s eye, imagine a large number of folks with front row seats at the water’s edge with the latecomers backed up onto the beach – standing room only.  And picture Jesus sitting in a small dinghy with the red paint chipped off one side of the bow, this small boat anchored a few dozen feet out into the lake and gently bobbing up and down with the rhythm of the swell.  
         And there he preached – well, not exactly an ordinary sermon.  You see, it was not laced with big “college” words and layer after layer of abstract theological reasoning and conceptualization. 
        His sermon – and just the way he taught - was more like a conversation around the evening campfire when people quietly shared bits and pieces of themselves as they poked the dying embers with sticks.  It was rather like a Moth Radio Hour – filled with the stories he told which, if they were not always literally true, were certainly true on a deeper, more significant level. 
         These stories Jesus used as his teaching model were called parables.  Theologian Frederick Buechner defines a parable as a little story with a big point and, if you have to have it explained, don’t bother.  You see, parables are simple, easily relatable stories set in places Jesus’ listeners were so very familiar with and peopled with characters that might just as well have been your next-door neighbor – or even yourself.
         The first parable Jesus ever told was about a farmer intent on planting and hoping for a grain harvest better than any he had garnered in past years.  Even the fishermen in the audience – though they had never sown a seed in their lives - listened intently because everyone – fisher folk or farmers - dream of a harvest big enough to feed a family for a year.
         In this story, the farmer tossed his seed everywhere – up against the stone-wall that bordered his field, in the field itself, and even on the other side of the wall that ran right along the roadway.  His fellow farmers were aghast and commented there at the cracker barrel in the general store that he was foolish because he was wasting much of his seed. After all, seed was an expensive investment and too valuable a resource to be strewn about with abandon.  And in some ways, I suppose they were right.
         After all, some of the seed fell on the hard-packed road itself. Many of those seeds were crushed underfoot or by wagon wheels.  Needless to say, the birds also came and gobbled up the remainder – a veritable feast day for those with wings. 
         Some of the seed also fell on what looked to be good soil.  However, just a couple of inches down a limestone ledge lurked, characteristic of the terrain.  Now – these seeds might sprout, but they hardly stood a chance.  The soil only went so deep before it hit bedrock – and resistance.  And besides, a gust of wind could easily stir up the couple inches of topsoil and send the seeds hither and yon, and they would never get enough water anyway.  
         And the seeds the farmer tossed that ended up in the thorns?  Maybe he did not see the culprits at first in the newly plowed field, but they were there.  So forget those seeds!  They were overrun in short order by the tenacious and rapacious weeds – choked off from water and essential soil nutrients. 
         However, some of the seeds fell on good soil – dark, moist loam – the kind that crumbles easily in your hands and you have to wipe them on your pants when you are ready to finish up and go inside for supper.  And those seeds flourished and produced grain in such quantity that even the farmer was surprised – and delighted. 
         Sometimes I think we get all tangled up trying to figure out what this parable means - for us, today.  Scratching our heads, we tie ourselves in theological knots wondering if the main thrust of the parable is the farmer – or the seeds.
         And, if it is the farmer throwing good seed into the nooks and crannies of the stone wall as readily as into the rich dark loam of the newly plowed field, then what choice does the seed have in where it lands?  And if the seeds are important, well, is that supposed to be us?  And should we feel guilty about the soil we have landed in? 
Or is the main character and protagonist neither the farmer nor the seeds at all, but the soil that should be front and center?
         So much to unravel that it makes us just want to close our Bibles and hope for an easier passage next Sunday.  However, I think this parable can have meaning for us – even this morning – if, before we dive into the parable itself, we reflect on Jesus’ words that begin and end it – rather like bookends.  “Listen!” Jesus starts off in no uncertain terms.  And again, in conclusion, “Listen, then, if you have ears!”
         This parable may be about agriculture – seeds and soil and sowing farmers.  However, first and foremost, it is about listening.  That is what Jesus is calling us to do first.
         A middle-aged man was distraught over his wife’s refusal to admit she had a hearing problem.  So he asked his family doctor how to convince his wife of this fact. The doctor told him that, when he got home, he could confirm the hearing problem by opening the front door, and from there asking his wife, “Honey, what’s for dinner?”
         Then the doctor said, “If she doesn’t answer, move closer to the kitchen.  Repeat the question again, and if she still doesn’t answer, move right up to her ear and whisper, ‘What’s for dinner, honey?’
In this way,” the doctor assured him, “she will have to admit she has a hearing problem.”
         So the man raced home and opened the front door.  “What’s for dinner, honey?” he asked. 
        His wife made no reply, so he moved closer to the kitchen and asked again, “What’s for dinner, honey?”  Again: no response. 
         Finally, he tiptoed into the kitchen and whispered in her ear, “What’s for dinner, honey?” 
         She turned and looked at him straight in the eye, “For the third time, I said we’re having meat loaf!” 
         Can you hear?  As a follower of Jesus, are you a good listener?  My 97 year old mother recently got hearing aids.  The staff at the nursing home where she and my father live have a hard time putting them in properly – even after several months. Consequently, when I visit, I usually end up putting the hearing aids in properly and then asking her – kind of as a joke – just like the Verizon commercial, “Can you hear me now?”
        Jesus might just as well have said the same thing:  “Can you hear me now?”  “Listen!”  The Gospel writer of Mark would surely say that Jesus puts a high premium on listening well – and so we should do likewise.  Perhaps, as one blogger I read this week speculated, we have been outfitted with two ears and one mouth for a reason. 
         And so, using the symbolism of our parable as a framework, we ask ourselves.  Do we listen - here in church for instance – do we listen to the readings and the prayers and the songs and the sermon, but with hearts as hard-packed and impenetrable as the roadway where some seeds in our story fell? Do we listen in order to solidify our own theological or political position, not really being open to Jesus’ message of compassion and justice and inclusion? Do we cherry-pick what we leave with each week?
         Or do we listen and even get excited about what we hear, but the message and the uplifted feeling we get never lasts much beyond the postlude?  No matter how much the preacher analyzes the seed, no matter how beautifully the choir sings about the seed and the liturgist reads about it, if all that does not penetrate Sunday after Sunday, then growth is not possible – a hard lesson for every worship leader!  Or do we listen and get excited, but bail out when times get tough?  When a prayer is unanswered? Or a trust broken?  Do we shrug our shoulders and lament, “What’s the use?”
         Or do we listen and actually take to heart what we hear?  Do we leave worship with good intentions, but then life gets in the way? After all, there is competition for our time and energy.  Our priorities shift.  We are pulled in many directions.  Just as real as church had seemed on Sunday morning, getting the bills paid, our job, our reputation, and those endless To Do Lists seem even more real.  Even though we do not mean to, do we choke out and strangle the message we have heard with our shifting priorities?
         Difficult questions to be sure, but - “Listen!”  Jesus says.   “Listen if you have ears!” How in heaven’s name are we to do that?
         According to Reformed pastor, Scott Hoezee, “the Hebrew understanding of listen (shama) is more than just more mental activity, more than just passive acceptance of sounds through our ears. Instead ‘shama’ carries the old servant’s motto ‘to hear is to obey.’”
         Listening and doing therefore are inextricably linked for Jesus.  Consequently, on the one hand, our ministry in this church cannot be unfocused doing – or doing that only makes us feel good inside.  Our ministry cannot be doing without a purpose or doing that is not in alignment with our goals.
         Because we are small and do not have endless resources and social capital (that is, volunteers), our doing must be intentional.  That is why we are going to be engaging in some visioning as a congregation this year, so that our doing has meaning and is grounded in our listening to the needs of the communities around us.
         On the other hand, our ministry in this church cannot be only listening either.  As Presbyterian pastor John Kapteyn noted, “So many of us Christians are listeners. We focus on hearing, reading and learning the word rather than doing the word. We give Sunday School awards to those who memorize the word rather than those who live according to it. We come to church to hear the word, but do we go home to live the word?“
        A clergy colleague observed recently the difference between doing and being.  She wrote, “ Any congregation can do church. Doing church includes the to-do lists of congregational life—things that every church does that too often become the ends rather than the means. Being church is harder. Being church means loving one another, even when we disagree. Being church means supporting one another through the hard times. Being church means working for justice, rejecting racism, fighting for the powerless. Being church is more important than merely doing church.”
         Listening and doing are inextricably linked for Jesus.  That is the bottom line. One without the other makes for shoddy discipleship. And I would suggest that listening lies at the root of our church vision.  First, we must listen to one another, listen to the cries and whispers of our community both here in Raymond and beyond, listen first and foremost to the One who told us to listen in the first place, the one whose stories – parables - are so wonderful and so true.  Only then we will be discerning disciples who act – who do – out of a deep understanding of Jesus’ mission of compassion, justice, and reconciliation.

         ”Listen, then, if you have ears!”