Above the Noise

You can listen to the dry run of this sermon by clicking here.  Or read on.

Life these days is inherently noisy.  There is a cacophony of sound flying past our faces seemingly every minute of every day.  Every waiting room, dining room, and more and more rest rooms has a TV in it, usually blaring the latest thing one of the news agencies thinks we should be concerned about.  Places that aren’t bombarding us with television instead pipe in some variation of smooth jazz music for our ears to tune into while we spend extra money at the grocery store or clothing boutique.  As smartphones become ubiquitous, chimes of varying styles, lengths and volumes can be heard with every email, text, tweet or poke.  Even in the silence, there is noise: the whir of a laptop fan, the clicking of a keyboard, and the sound of water running in the ice machine.  No matter where we are: the beach, the car, the office, or at home, there are conversations going on live and virtually around us at all times, and I’m not even counting the voices in our heads.  And don’t get me started on the noise that comes with having children.  Life is noisy, and it has become increasingly difficult to figure out what we should actually pay attention to and what can fade into the background noise.

It is no wonder then, that we’ve become really good at making a distinction between hearing and listening.  We hear lots and lots of things on a daily basis, but if you ask any parent, teacher, or spouse, it’s clear that we actually listen to very little.  The underlying assumption is that hearing is strictly an automatic physiological process.  Sound waves float throughout the air at all times, they make their way into the ear canal, vibrate the ear drum which turns it into an electrical signal that the brain can process and we hear a sound. <CLAP>.  If you are not hearing disabled, then you just heard me clap whether you wanted to or not.  Hearing is a totally passive process.  Listening, on the other hand, requires you to make the choice to pay attention.  As you begin to turn your focus onto one item among the many sounds going on around you at any given moment, your brain begins to function “like a set of noise-suppressing headphones,”[1] pushing things into the background those things that you will simply hear and bringing to the forefront that thing to which you want to listen.   Sometimes, the choice of what to listen to is obvious.  Sometimes, the sounds compete for your attention.  Sometimes, there’s nothing worth listening to, but in the high powered, fast moving 21st century, we work hard to discern between hearing and listening.

In the earliest hours of Church history, however, the differences between hearing and listening were much less obvious.  In fact, for Luke in his two-part series, Luke-Acts, there seems to be no difference between hearing and listening.  Certainly, there was still a cacophony of sound in first century Palestine: bleating donkeys, flies buzzing, blacksmiths hammering, myriad conversations happening all around, while merchants shouted, selling their wares. Linguistically, however, Luke makes no distinction between hearing and listening, using the same Greek word to mean both passive hearing and active listening.  In the story of Pentecost, of which we heard only a part this morning, the crowd is “amazed and perplexed” as they passively “hear” the disciples speaking in a myriad of different languages, while later they are admonished by Peter to “listen” to the Good News.

Peter’s sermon is addressed to a divided crowd.  Some have seen the events of the morning and are asking, “What does this mean?”  Others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine!”  As Peter stands up to speak over the myriad of other noises, some listen to Peter’s words with eager expectation, while others only are barely willing to hear what he has to say.  We could make a whole lot of the difference between passive hearing and active listening, but the Pentecost story makes clear that it doesn’t matter.  Instead, it is the Spirit that opens our ears to the Good News of Jesus, whether we are listening or not.  Peter preaches at some length, explaining in detail how this amazing Pentecost scene fits into the larger story of God’s salvation history,  and as the story ends, Luke tells us that, “when the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’  Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.’ … So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.   They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

This morning, we add our voices to the sound of celebration, rejoicing with those who over the course of the last two-thousand-ish years have heard the voice of the Lord over all the other sound in their lives.  We remember with great joy the millions of souls whose ears have been opened to the Good News by the Spirit and have followed the model begun on that first Pentecost Day: full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. We rejoice with two adults: Myrna Rivas and Patrick Faust; who have listened to God’s calling above all the other noise in their lives and have decided to join Christ’s Body in the waters of baptism.  We celebrate alongside the Branch/Roberts family as they commit, with God’s help, to teach John Cole to tune his ears and heart to know the voice of the Lord when he calls, even as we recommit ourselves to listening to the voice of the Father who calls us to

  • continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers
  • to repent and return to the Lord every time we fall into sin
  • to take our place as the prophets of God – proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ
  • to seek and serve Christ in everyone we meet, loving our neighbor as ourselves
  • to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being

Hearing may be a fully automatic, physiological function, but like everything else, it too was created by God, and he uses it to help us listen to his voice and follow where he leads.  Send your Spirit, Lord God, open our ears, speak to our hearts, and bring forth your Kingdom.  Amen.

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