Sermon: Last Sunday After Epiphany B
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol
Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’
I don’t know if this will come as a surprise to any of you or not, but I am not only extremely introverted—by which I mean that I recharge my batteries by being alone—but I am also naturally extremely shy. You should have seen me when I was little. Like the summer after kindergarten, when my family moved across town to a neighborhood of mostly retired folks and childless couples. The lack of kids was staggering. So one day, I hopped on my bike and started riding up and down the street, just for something to do. Suddenly, a girl about my age came out of her house, walked to the curb, waved, and said, “Hi!” Soon after, I went racing into my house and ran up to my mother and said, “Mom! Mom! There’s a girl about my age down the street! She said hi to me!” And my Mom said, “That’s great, honey! So do you two want to play?” And I said, “I don’t know. I didn’t ask.” And she said, “Well, what happened after she said hi?” And I said, “I rode back here and told you about it.” My Mom said, “Did you even say hi back?” “No.” “Well go back there,” she said, “and say hi back.” So I did. The little girl said hi again, and I said hi back, and then I rode home to tell my Mom about it. When, after the third time that I rode home to tell my Mom about this little girl, I still didn’t know her name, my Mom started practicing with me. She played the part of the little girl, and I played me, and we practiced having a conversation. We did this for a solid week before I started 1st grade at a new school too. In fact, I spent a lot of my young years practicing how to talk to others with my Mom.
While what my mother did with me here was helpful, and certainly helped me make friends, it had a curious side-effect: It became my habit, when in conversation, to only half-listen to what others were saying. While others spoke, I was engaged in furious thought: What was I going to say next? What was I going to do next? As I got older, I began worrying about how others perceived me; I wanted others to think that I was smart, witty, and sophisticated. And so I maintained the habit of only half-listening as I plotted my next move. Let me be clear: This had nothing to do with my ability to pay attention. I was capable of spending long periods of time listening to others, as long as an immediate response was not expected, as in a lecture. But in conversation or discussion, my focus was almost entirely upon myself, and it wasn’t until my early 30s that I began consciously trying to break this habit and to become a good active listener, with a focus upon others.
I spent years thinking that this was just me; surely others were better active listeners than I was. But I’m not so sure anymore. In fact, lately I’ve been wondering whether our failure to really listen to each other hasn’t reached the level of societal pathology. Would it be fair to attribute the degree of our societal strife to our failure to listen to each other? What would our world look like if we truly listened to others? Would our nation be paralyzed by partisan politics if our leaders truly knew how to listen? And are they just following the example of their constituents, who seem to gain more satisfaction ranting on Facebook than they do in truly listening to each other? Would it be easier for the members of the Church (with a capital C) to remain in communion with each other if we truly listened to one another? And if we did this, would we find more people walking through our doors and sitting in our pews?
And what would our world look like if we all became masters in listening to God?
In many ways, the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus is a story about the disciples’ failure to listen, and this makes it even more compelling, because their failure is my failure; their failure is society’s failure. Let’s take a look at this amazing chain of events. Jesus invites Peter, James, and John up the mountain. He was transfigured before them, and Moses and Elijah appear and begin to converse with Jesus. Now the transfiguration is an amazing thing, as is the appearance of Moses and Elijah. But do you know what I find even more amazing? We have no idea what Moses, Elijah, and Jesus talked about! Seriously—if I had a time machine and an invisibility pill, and I could go back in time to witness something, it just might be that conversation. What do the Law, the Prophet, and the Messiah talk about during a reunion on a mountaintop? How could Peter, James, and John not tell us? This is just a guess, but I suspect they weren’t listening. Instead, the gospel tells us that they were terrified. Terrified people don’t listen, because they are focused on themselves. Can’t you just hear their minds racing? Instead of being fully in the moment, focused on what is happening around them, they are focused on themselves, and so this whole conversation is lost.
And this isn’t the only time that these three disciples weren’t all that good at listening to Jesus—at focusing on him rather than on themselves. Looking just at the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus predicts the cross, Peter rebukes him; he is less worried about listening then about his vision of what the coming of the Messiah is supposed to look like. James and John, you remember, ask Jesus whether when he comes into his glory, they may sit in places of honor, one at his right hand and one at his left. At the last supper, instead of listening to Jesus and engaging in some introspection, Peter denies that he will deny Jesus. And it is these three disciples that Jesus takes with him to Gethsamane. He tells them to stay awake and pray, and they fall asleep. All too often, their focus is on what they are going to say, what they are going to do, what they would like to see in future, and on themselves, instead of on the word of Jesus.
And then Peter clinches it. When he joins in the conversation between Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, he says, “Rabbi, it is good for us to here.” He has an idea regarding what to do next. Instead of listening to this historical conversation, he’s been thinking about what to do next. Now, I really can’t blame him. Peter must have felt that he had something to prove. After all, just before their trip up the mountain, Peter denied the prediction of the Passion, and Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Get behind me Satan! You are an obstacle to me.” That had to sting. I’m guessing that he didn’t want to mess up again, and so he came up with a really great idea, one grounded in Jewish tradition: “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” This calls to mind several pieces of Biblical history: the Tabernacle, the dwelling place of God, as well as the Feast of the Tabernacles, a sacred observance ordained by God in the book of Leviticus. The prophet Zechariah had predicted that in the final age, all of the peoples of the earth shall come up to Jerusalem year after year to worship God and to celebrate the Feast of the Tabernacles. Placed in this context, Peter’s suggestion is quite smart. It recognizes the divinity of Jesus and grounds that day’s happenings in both the Law and the Prophets. He must have felt really good; I would have! But what happens next must have crushed him: God cuts him off! Today’s gospel says, “Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’” If we were to completely anthropomorphize God and, moreover, make him sarcastic, can’t you just hear him sighing and saying, “Hey Peter, shut up a second, will ya? This is my Son. Focus on him. Listen to him.” We’ve heard these words once before, at the baptism of Jesus. But today, God adds the injunction to listen to Jesus. This was the failure of the disciples; this is our failure; once we have accepted that Jesus is the Son of God, we must follow up that faith with some real listening. This is no small task. It demands that we be a little less in love with ourselves, a little less enamored with our own thoughts and the sound of our own voices. It demands a certain degree of quiet within our minds and souls. It demands that we give ourselves over to the Word of—and the call of—God.
This changes our own narrative quite a bit. We are no longer the central figure in our own story. There’s nothing easy about accepting that. Quite a few years ago, a friend of mine wrote, “Each successive ‘yes’ to God, however small, equals some measure of sacrifice.” As we see in the lives of Peter, James, and John, listening to Jesus constitutes a pretty large “yes” to God. And the measure of sacrifice—to our egos, to our world view, to our view of others—is equally huge.
But I ask again: What would our world look like if we all became masters in listening to God? It’s difficult, but it is what is best for us.
Wednesday, of course, is Ash Wednesday. We are exiting the season of Epiphany, during which we relive and celebrate the revelation of Jesus as the Christ, as God’s own Son, and entering the season of Lent. Lent, of course, is a time for soul-searching and repentance. It’s a time for reflection and discipline. It is, in short, a time for listening. You know, I’m fond of referring to the 40 days of Lent as “the long slog through Lent.” It’s not my favorite season of the church year. I don’t like packing away the percussion instruments that the children use. I don’t like giving up the Alleluias. I don’t like fish. I don’t like talking about sin and repentance quite so much. Twice in the past week I’ve said out loud, “And after the Ash Wednesday liturgy at 6:00pm, we’ll all go home and be depressed.” And I REALLY don’t like giving up stuff in my own life—makeup or iPhone games or chocolate or what have you. But the purpose of all of it is to quiet us down, to be a little less in love with ourselves and our stuff. It is meant to force us to focus less on ourselves and on the things in this world that distract us and consume us, and to focus on God, really listening to God. And the narrative of the transfiguration helps take us there. We move, in one amazingly brief story, from the revelation of the divinity of Jesus to the command to listen to him. The narrative also holds for us a promise—the promise of the resurrection as foreshadowed by this transfigured Jesus. And inherent in the story is, I believe, another promise: the promise of the possibility of our own transformation, and the transformation of our world. If only we can learn to listen.
What WOULD our world look like if we all became masters in listening to God? How would we be transformed? Can you imagine it—even a little? As we walk down the mountain this week, into the low ground of Lent and begin the long slog toward Jerusalem and crucifixion, let’s work on really listening to God. Because what would happen if we REALLY all became masters in listening to God is so much better than we can ask or imagine. So let’s practice together, for 40 days. Let’s just listen.