Friday, May 27, 2016

Obedience: The Art of Listening Attentively (RCL Proper 9C, 29 May 2016)

Obedience:  The Art of Listening Attentively
Reflections on the Readings of Proper 9C

The Second Sunday after Pentecost
29 May 2016

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC
            Do you remember how you learned to read?  The first step was to learn the alphabet the sounds that each letter or combination of letters symbolized.  Then we learned to sound out the words and to understand how punctuation made one combination of words into a statement and the same combination of words into a question.  For most children it is an exciting time as these strange graphic shapes produce meaning.

            As we gained greater fluency in reading the words aloud and the sentences with meaning, our teachers usually encouraged us to read sotto voce or, as language teachers say, subvocalize the words on the page.  ‘Read to yourself,’ our teachers would sometimes say and so we did.  Then came the day when we realized that we were reading silently, perhaps mouthing the words without any sound.

            Reading silently has the advantage of increasing the speed of our reading.  When I was in high school, my parents invested in the Evelyn Wood speed-reading programme for me.  They were told that university required a lot of reading and, my parents being the kind of folks they were, wanted to make sure that I had every advantage.  I learned to read using my right hand to guide my eyes as they went from line to line, page to page, chapter to chapter.  I learned how to make notes that resembled trees with leaves and branches. 

            What I almost lost and what I think some folks have lost is the ability to listen to the spoken language.  We have become so visual in our way of learning and our way of gaining knowledge, that listening to words being spoken or read is becoming a lost art.  I have listened to children and adults who were encouraged too quickly to read silently.  As a result, they cannot read poetry, an art form that cannot be read silently.  In some parishes it is increasingly difficult to find people who are comfortable reading the Scriptures out loud.

            This difficult in hearing has influenced the work that four of my colleagues and I have just finished.  For more than five years we have read prayers out loud in order to choose and to adapt prayers we think will point us to the Scriptures readings on a given Sunday or occasion.  We’ve looked closely at punctuation and how to write the prayer in sense lines so that, whether said only by the presiding celebrant or the whole congregation, the words will have meaning.

            Knowing how to listen is key to obedience.  Obedience is not a word that is popular these days.  To use it carelessly is to conjure up images of power used badly or unquestioning loyalty to a person or an ideology.  Obedience is a term that has been used to subjugate women and minority groups to the will of men or of the majority.  Dogs go to ‘obedience’ training.  The ways that the word ‘obedience’ has been used to manipulate and to control people is a very long list indeed.

            But obedience, understood correctly, is essential to the life of faith.  In her book on the Rule of Saint Benedict, Esther de Waal points out that the origin of the word ‘obedience’ is obaudiens, a Latin word which means ‘to listen intently’ (Seeking God 2001, p. 13).  To be obedient does not mean to follow someone or something blindly.  To be obedient means to listen intently for and to the voice of truth.

            When Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a sacrificial duel on Mount Carmel, near to present-day Haifa, his goal is to help the people of Israel listen for and to the voice of God.  It was the God of Israel, the Holy One, Adonai Elohenu, who had brought them out of bondage in Egypt to the land of Canaan --- not the thunder god Baal.  It was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who had spoken to Moses and given the law at Mount Sinai --- not the fertility god worshipped by the Canaanites.

            When Paul writes to the young church in Galatia, a region of present-day Turkey, he believes that they have stopped listening to the good news he had brought to them on an earlier journey.  Instead of remembering that by his death and resurrection Jesus has liberated all peoples, the Galatians have started listening to voices that call them back to old ways of thinking.  Instead of celebrating the fact that Gentiles as well as Jews have been brought into a new relationship with God, they have begun to listen to voices telling them that they must be Jews before they can be Christians.

            When Jesus encounters the centurion in Capernaum, a small town on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, he meets a man who is listening intently for and to the voice of God.  This is a man, an officer in the Roman army of occupation, who has listened and begun to follow Torah, the wisdom of God.  His listening has led him to a place of trust and confidence that God is working through Jesus of Nazareth.  Throughout my life, before and after ordination, the centurion’s words have been so important to me that I recite them before I receive communion.

6 And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7 therefore I did not presume to come to you.  But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.  8 For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.”  (Luke 7.6-8)

            Let me make a practical suggestion or two about how the way of obedience.  I know that we have placed Bibles in the pews, but rather than read along with the reader, just listen.  What word or words stick in your mind?  What phrase spoke clearly to you?  What was God inviting you to do through the words that were spoken?  As much as I hope my words spoken have meaning for those who hear them, I would be content if someone were to go home after a service remembering nothing of my sermon but a phrase from one of the readings or one of the prayers that shed light on her or his life.

            When you read the Scriptures at home, read them out loud.  Read them slowly, letting words have an impact on your hearing and thinking.  Bishop Melissa has brought with her a monastic tradition of reading the psalm more meditatively.  When we gather as a Diocese, we pause at the asterisk for a count of three.  Just a brief pause, difficult for some to do, but a pause which allows the psalm to be heard rather than recited.

            This is the obedience of faith.  It is an attitude of attentive listening at all times and in all places for the voice of truth, the wisdom of God that calls out to us wherever we are and wherever we go.  It is an obedience that challenges blind loyalty and unquestioning service to political ideologies.  It is a life open to listening for and to the voice of the living God amidst the clamour and babble of lesser gods whose voices are but noisy gongs and clanging cymbals (1 Corinthians 13.1).

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