“You haven`t been listening to a thing I`ve said have you?” she complained. “Of course I have dear” he replied, pulling back the Newspaper. It`s frustrating isn`t it? You know someone`s heard the words- at least, you think they have – but whether they have really listened is another matter.
It might not be it`s not as blatant as hiding behind the newspaper. Perhaps it`s the casual glance over your shoulder while you`re talking; the way they have one eye on the T.V or the way they never ask any questions and keep turning the subject to themselves- but you know that somehow they`re not really there with you or giving you their full attention.
Now, I`m not talking about not hearing- the loss of which is painful enough. I`m talking about not listening which is something more. Listening is a word that indicates that communication is actually happening rather than just sounds flowing through the air. We`re talking about something which shapes both parties to the conversation. Of course we all know people, like that headstrong teenager we once were, who `never really listen`. It`s just `in one ear and out the other`, as we say, and we know others simply don`t want to listen; certainly to not to any point of view that would disturb or challenge them. Equally, perhaps most of us are prone to being choosy or selective in our listening. Paul Simon once sang: `A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest`.
And certainly listening is sometimes a strange phenomenon. Interesting, selective and even creative things are going on. I mean, time and again people will say to me- `Vicar, do you remember when you said?` And caught between feeling flattered and worried I`ve checked the text of my sermon or whatever, only to find I said nothing of the sort. What were they really listening to I wonder?
As I`ve already hinted, real listening requires that we give our full attention. Listening can involve reading between the lines. Picking up the body language, the inflection, the tone of voice. Listening involves empathy and understanding; the willingness not to interrupt but, as one person put it, “to let the other `talk themselves out` if necessary”. And importantly listening requires that we are open to change. Yes, we have to sift what we receive but listening means the willingness to adjust our outlook and consequently our actions on the basis of what we`ve listened to. For example listening to someone telling you `Your house is on fire` can bring about a very significant change in your outlook and behaviour!
But because really listening can get under our skin in this way it matters who and what we listen to. So, over a period of time listening to that voice that encourages and supports you has exactly that effect. But equally we know that constantly listening to words that tell you you`re a fool and that you`ll never amount to anything can have a diminishing if not paralysing effect. So I`m wanting today to ask you to reflect on listening.
How far, do you think you have learnt the gift of empathy and really listening. Have you learnt to give others your full attention? Are you good at reading between the lines and receiving what someone is not saying as much as what they are? Or are you so full of yourself that there is no room for others? Listen to yourself next time you`re in conversation. If nothing else that should make the after worship coffee interesting!
But I wonder, what are the voices that you are listening to? What voices are informing and forming the person you are becoming? To some extent it`s about authority isn`t it? Whose voice and opinion do we value and trust? But it`s remarkable isn`t it, how if you do something and a number of people say, “well done, that was great” -the one voice you`ll really listen to is that one negative comment….. “well, it could have been better”.
Our Gospel reading this morning (Matthew 17.1-9) was the account of that strange vision the disciples had on the mountain but it contained two things I`d invite you to ponder. They are contained in those words: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ Firstly, these are words to which Jesus had listened. If you recall these words are a repeat of what was said at his Baptism. They affirmed his identity and calling. And as Jesus turned to face the cross it was this declaration of who he was that he chiefly listened to. Why else would the tempter in the wilderness continually challenge this by saying, “If you are the Son of God then….” It was important. Listening to and being formed by what the Father said of him was the very foundation of his life.
And Lent, which begins this week, is a time for us to listen again; and I mean really listen to these very same words which encapsulate what was going on when we were Baptised. ‘You are my Son, my daughter the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. This is why at the end of our Lenten journey, on Easter Day we reaffirm our Baptism Vows. We will claim for ourselves not so much what we promise to do but `Who God says we are`. It`s this that we need to listen to; and consequently if you want to give up something for Lent, try that. Quit listening to all those voices which deny or inhibit the truth of who you are as a Son or daughter of God.
Secondly, listen again to what the disciples were told? ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ What we are invited to do is to give our attention, our full attention to Christ. We`re invited to be quite deliberate in listening, taking to heart and being changed and formed by the words of Christ. `Listen to him`. This morning`s Gospel effectively asks us, `Who are you listening to?` `What voices are informing and forming the person you are becoming?` `Whose word really has authority in your life; whose word do you most value?` St Paul says: `Let word of Christ dwell in you richly`.
So what will it be? Here we offer plenty of opportunities to be this deliberate: Quiet Space, Morning Prayer, Sunday Worship, the Prayer Adventure….. daily engagement with the scriptures and the word of Christ…. But you might like to take a look at your daily routines. Respectfully, as I`ve said before, if we are not spending at least as much time with the gospels each day as we do with our daily newspaper then our priorities are obvious. This isn`t about piling on the guilt or fear. It`s to point out what you`re missing and how mistaken you are. To use good old religious language there`s a call here to `repent`. To let go of what is candidly a false and foolhardy way of life; and to choose differently; to choose the way to life. To listen to him.
Jesus makes this quite clear when he talks about the folly of failing to listen and indeed act on what he says. I took assembly with the little ones last week and we all sang the song about “the wise man built his house upon the rock and the rains came tumbling down”. And we all go `Aah!` However, in the second verse Jesus tells us of the foolish man who built his house on the sand. The man who wasn`t really listening…. The man whose house; whose life went `crash!` because he`d built that house; and founded his life on listening to other voices that amounted to sand….. or perhaps we should say, `flood plains?`.
What did the Vicar say? … `We should all read our Bibles?`… Well yes, it includes that and I`ll give you every assistance I can but please read my lips… What did the Vicar say? `Listen to him`. If we are not constantly listening to Christ then our life will become an exercise in accumulating metaphorical sandbags; trying to hold off the consequences of failing to listen. And if we are not constantly listening to Christ then he will remain but a stranger.
`Listen to him…` says our Gospel. Let me give you an example of why this matters. I recently took Holy Communion to a group of elderly people. I was introduced to a new lady and told that her memory wasn`t good and that sometimes she was `with us` and sometimes not. As the short service began I introduced the prayers of confession with the words of Jesus: “Come to me all who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest”. And at that moment this lady gave out a warm sigh of recognition. She had listened to him. In the struggles of her latter years the word of Jesus had come true. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me”.