Do you hear what I hear?



One of the unintended consequences of “church on the floor” is the reality that I am now sitting four feet from the first person in the pews.  In our usual arrangement, I’m up half a flight of steps, through the choir, and a good forty or more feet from the pews.  As a result of this new experience, I find myself paying attention to the way in which our people are engaged in worship.  For example, during Deacon Kellie’s sermon yesterday, as her mic cut in and out, people were genuinely engaged in her preaching.  They were paying attention, actively listening, in order to hear the good word that she was offering, the Gospel she was proclaiming.

As much as we’d like to believe that our people are consistently engaged in worship on Sunday morning, the reality is, like it is everywhere else, there are moments in the liturgy when the congregation is somewhere else.  I’m not sure where they are: pondering brunch plans, stressed about money, planning the week ahead, or deep in prayer are all possibilities.  However, I am keenly aware of where our folks are during the reading of the lessons – they are in their bulletin, following along with the text that is set before them, and I’m not 100% convinced that is a good thing.

Our collect for Proper 28 is specifically focused on the role of Scripture in our lives.  (I’ve written a chapter on this collect in “Acts to Action,” which I hope you will read (you can buy at (and, full disclosure, for which, I do not receive any compensation))).  It highlights that Scriptures’ primary role in our lives is as a teaching tool, and that the primary way with which we are to engage the Bible is not through our eyes, but through our ears.

There is something unique that happens when we just listen.  Our brains receive the information in a different way than if we are following along, anticipating the next word that is printed before us.  When we listen to the text, we join with the majority of our illiterate siblings in Judeo-Christian history in receiving God’s great love story as it was originally told, out loud, as a tale passed down from one generation to another.  In listening, our imaginations go to work.  We can find ourselves inside the story.  We can hear it in our own unique way.  We may not hear what our neighbors’ hear, but we can hear what God has to say to us in that exact moment.

This Sunday, as we pray the collect for Proper 28, I hope that you’ll join me in putting down your bulletin and just listen.  Listen for the word that God has for you.


Not just hearing, but listening

I have always loved the story of God calling Samuel.  It makes for great theater.  There is the subtle dig at the faithfulness of God’s chosen people in the note that “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”  There is the mentor relationship of the old man, Eli, and the young prophet, Samuel.  There is the prophecy of the destruction of the house of Eli, with words that make the ears of all who where them tingle (such a great line).  What I find most appealing in the story, however, is the call itself.

Because of the strained relationship between God and Eli, Samuel hasn’t had much opportunity to experience the prophetic word.  In fact, the author tells us that he “did not yet know the Lord and the word of the Lord was not yet known to him.”  So, when Samuel, laying down in the Temple near the Ark of the Covenant, heard a voice calling him by name, he assumed it was Eli.  Three times this happened, until Eli, with his eyes dim both literally and spiritually, realized what was going on.  He sent him back, hopeful that Samuel might get a fourth chance to hear the voice of God.  Eli’s advice is as simple as it is profound, “Say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'”

There is, as we all know well, a distinct difference between hearing and listening.  This is true in interpersonal relationships, as well as in our relationship with God.  In teaching about prayer, it is often said that we need to move beyond talking at God so that we can hear God’s voice.  If we stop at simply hearing, we haven’t gone far enough.  Samuel heard, but did not understand.  It is only when we begin to listen, actively and carefully, that we can really begin to discern the will of God for our lives.

Listening isn’t easy.  It requires us to give time and full attention to the one who is speaking, and in a world full of distractions and schedules full of commitments, it can be hard to move beyond a cursory hearing and into deep listening.  I know this is true in my life, and I’m sure it is in yours as well.  I also know that when I take the time to really listen, I am blessed.  Even when the news is hard to hear, like it was for Samuel, it can be a blessing.  So today, amidst of the fog of another late-night football game, I’m reminded to slow down, to move beyond hearing, and to listen for God.

Do your homework and pay attention – a sermon

Today’s Christmas 2 Sermon is now available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

When I was in High School, I learned about a chemical phenomenon called Osmosis.  You’ve probably heard of it too, it is the tendency of a liquid to pass through a semipermeable membrane into another liquid where the solvent concentration is higher, thus equalizing the concentration on both sides of the membrane.[1]  Being a curious, albeit also a lazy high school student, there were a few nights when I attempted to push the limits of osmosis.  With a big test looming the next day, a test that I had probably not studied for at all, I would place my text book under my pillow hoping that the information that was highly concentrated in the book would osmotically make its way into my brain where the concentration of information on the subject was quite low.  Unfortunately, it never worked, and I usually did pretty poorly on the tests that I studied for by osmosis.  Eventually, I learned that the only way to really learn something is by doing my homework and paying attention.

As we wind down the 12 Days of Christmas and transition to the Season of Epiphany, the Lectionary provides us with the story of some men from the East who did their homework and paid attention.  The Wise Men, the Magi, the 3 Kings; whichever name you call them by, this story is as much a part of our Christmas consciousness as the angels, shepherds, and swaddling clothes.  It is through their part in the Christmas story that we find our place in the Kingdom of God.  It is through their diligence, their devotion to an odd, pagan religion known as Zoroastrianism, and their desire to pay homage to the newborn King of Israel that we get our first glimpse into how the birth of Jesus was meant to change more than just the fate of Israel: Jesus came to save the whole world.

The story of the Wise Men begins long before Christmas and far away from Bethlehem.  These men, traditionally given the names Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar were men who studied both the stars and the world around them.  They were keenly aware of the promises made by prophets and oracles around the known world.  They had read the holy texts of the world’s religions so that when a new thing occurred in the night skies, they might know what it meant.  On that first Christmas night, a new star shone bright in the heavens, and the wise men were paying attention.  They had done their homework, and knew that this particular star was rising in the west, announcing the birth of the King of Israel, promised by the prophet Balaam in the 24th chapter of Numbers.  They felt compelled to welcome the newborn King, to pay him homage, and so they began their long journey, following the star along their way.

After a very long journey, Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar finally entered the city of Jerusalem, home of the Throne of David, fully expecting that the now toddler to whom they’d come to pay homage would be found there.  They’d done their homework, but they’ve missed a few key details, and so “they strode into Jerusalem like a person wandering bare-footed into a snake pit asking, ‘Where’s the baby king?’”[2]  Eventually, they would find themselves face-to-face with the current King of Israel, Herod the Great, who also happened to be one of the most murderous madmen to ever occupy a throne.  The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia describes Herod as “of commanding presence; he excelled in physical exercises; he was a skillful diplomatist; and, above all, he was prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition.”[3] Needless to say, Herod didn’t take too kindly to the question, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”  The Wise Men were schooled in the art of paying attention to the stars, but how about reading people?  Did they see the fear in Herod’s eyes?  Could they read the deception in his heart as he invited them to bring back word of his location?  Were they paying enough attention to see through his forked tongued hope to “pay the child homage?”  I can’t help but wonder if the dream that warned them not to return to Herod was the Spirit confirming their own suspicions honed by the reading of the stars, of holy writ, and of the many powerful people they had come to meet along the way?

We will never know what was going on inside the Wise Men as they finished their journey, following the star until it stopped over the house where the Holy Family lived, but we do know what happened when they got there: they were overwhelmed with joy and bowed down in worship.  Once again, I can’t help but think that these Wise Men were in tune with what was going on both within them and around them.  They had come to meet a King, but found themselves face-to-face with the Son of God himself, a holy child who would change the fate of the earth just as he had already changed the landscape of the heavens.  All throughout their journey, the Wise Men paid attention, learned new things about themselves and about the baby boy they hoped to find, and they came to realize that God was doing something amazing.

As we embark on a New Year as disciples of the King of Israel, I wonder if I’m paying enough attention.  Star gazing isn’t a part of my spirituality, but listening for God certainly is, and I believe that part of a fulfilling religious life is paying attention.  There are myriad ways in which God can come to us, seeking to “wonderfully restore” our relationship with Him and with the world He created, but if we aren’t paying attention, if we aren’t attuned to the voice of God, then most likely we’ll miss an opportunity for great things, and the key to paying attention is practice.

As Keith said in his sermon last week, a life of prayer is one in which God speaks, something happens, and we respond.  When our response is to actually do something, to see God’s hand at work and to roll up our sleeves and join in, then we become more and more able to see God in the little things.  We become accustomed to the nuances of the Spirit, the little nudges, the soft voice, the burning in our hearts.  Paying attention to God at work in the big stuff, enables us to better pay attention to God at work in the little stuff, and allows us the opportunity to see the wonderful works of God all over our lives.

Yet the world is full of distraction.  So many things battle for our limited attention.  Often I’m so busy worrying about me and my stuff that I forget to look for God in the world around me, and when I’m not paying attention, I miss out on opportunities to bless and be blessed that are beyond my wildest imagination.  The problem gets compounded in the church.  Too often, congregations get so wrapped up in their own needs and desires that they forget to pay attention to God’s call to get beyond what time Sunday services should be or what kind of music people like or whether or not the whole prayer list is read every week and actually make a difference in the world around them.

God can change our hearts through osmosis.  The Spirit can work her way in, even without us noticing, but the real gift comes when we pay attention, when we do our homework, and when we seek out the will of God in our lives: personally and communally.  May God bless us richly with open eyes, ears, and minds that are paying attention to his call to be his hands, his feet, and his heart in Foley and to the ends of the earth.  Amen.


[2] This paragraph owes thanks to Alyce McKenzie, “Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh: Reflections on Matthew 2:1-12”

[3] (emphasis mine)