A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 17, 2015 (Easter 7, Year B)
I had lunch with a parishioner this week who told me about an acronym he had recently learned at a business seminar. It was W.A.I.T. — and it stood for Why Am I Talking? Something you may well be wondering at this very moment. But the basic premise was a reminder to talk less and listen more.
That’s always good advice and we hear it in a variety of ways. People often quote the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus who proclaimed, “We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Or the Mark Twain corollary, “If we were meant to talk more than listen, we would have two mouths and one ear.”
Many of us find ourselves in vocations or family interactions or social situations where we are expected to talk. It comes with the role of being a leader or an expert or a teacher or a parent or just a polite member of society. So one problem is that we sometimes feel the need to speak because we think it’s expected. And we find ourselves talking just for the sake of talking while drowning out other voices and perspectives from which we could learn so much more. A couple weeks ago I went to the annual clergy conference for the Diocese of Massachusetts. I won’t share exactly how this relates, but just imagine being in the same room with 200 priests…
The whole idea of the acronym W.A.I.T. is to speak only when we actually have something to contribute. And it helps to recognize that we’re not God’s gift to the conversation — whether in the board room, at the dinner table, or at coffee hour.
The other thing we often find ourselves doing in group settings is formulating what we plan to say rather than listening to others. This happens in class rooms, in Bible studies, at work, in vestry meetings. In our effort to sound eloquent and project the right image, we ignore true interaction and the conversation devolves into a bunch of individual monologues. W.A.I.T. — Why Am I Talking?
I’m pretty sure this principal was at work as the disciples gathered in the aftermath of Jesus’ ascension to choose a replacement for Judas. And, let’s be honest, those are pretty small shoes to fill — as long as you don’t betray Jesus you’ll be considered a smashing success. But it was an important decision for the future viability of this movement and it was the first major decision the church had to make without Jesus, so I’m sure tensions were high.
In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear that Peter stood up to address the crowd of 120 believers on this issue. You gather 120 Christians together and you get 120 opinions. We have at least 120 people here this morning (well, at least by the time the Church School kids come in) and so you can imagine that coming to some sort of consensus on a question of leadership would be difficult.
But after the initial back and forth and talking over one another, Peter is able to settle the crowd and set some parameters for the one who would take over for Judas. They agree that it should be someone who has been with them from the beginning; from Jesus’ baptism at the hand of John the Baptist to his ascension into heaven. And two men are proposed — Barsabbas and Matthias. But before there is any debate, you can almost envision Peter raising his hand and saying “W.A.I.T.”
Now the one thing you may know about the choosing of Judas’ replacement is that he was chosen by casting lots. And it’s hard not to hear that and think, “Wait a minute. One of the most important leaders of the early church was chosen by gambling? I knew there was Scriptural warrant for Powerball!”
Actually, casting lots was used as a method throughout Biblical times as a way to discern the will of God. Either sticks with markings or stones with symbols on them would be cast in to a small area and “read” to determine the answer. As with most things, casting lots could be done with good intent — like choosing the next apostle — or ill intent — like the Roman soldiers who cast lots for Jesus’ clothing during the crucifixion.
But even if it seems to us like flipping a coin or playing Keno, casting lots was not viewed as haphazard or based entirely on luck or superstition. It was an accepted practice used throughout Scripture to determine the will of God. The Israelites used the method to divide land and determine who would get certain positions in the Temple and the sailors on Jonah’s ship cast lots to figure out who had brought God’s wrath onto their ship — that would be Jonah, who they then pitched overboard.
But what gets lost in this whole process is that they didn’t just set up a craps table to determine Judas’ successor. They began with prayer. They heeded the call to W.A.I.T. — to stop talking and listen not to the sound of their own voices, but to God.
The thing is, this whole concept of asking ourselves “why am I talking” is the first and greatest commandment of prayer. Generally speaking when we pray, we’re yappers. We talk way too much. We try to name every person we’ve ever met or every situation we can think of that needs healing. We mentally run through our world atlas, thinking hard about all the hotspots where there’s war or conflict or natural disaster. We try to remember all the tragedies we’ve heard about on the news in the last 24 hours. Or our friends on Facebook who broke legs, lost jobs, or had kids home sick from school. The list goes on and on and on. The end result being guilt when we later remember we forgot to pray for Aunt Millie’s upcoming procedure to remove that pesky toe fungus.
These are all good prayerful thoughts, of course. But we can get so caught up in telling God what to do that we neglect the most important part of prayer, which is listening. And we forget that God already knows all our needs before we ask. And doesn’t that take all the pressure off? We don’t have to run down the shopping list of prayer requests, living in fear that we’ll forget to pick up the sour cream or pray for peace in Uganda. To mix metaphors.
When Jesus ascends into heaven, there’s an angel standing among the disciples. As they’re silently gawking up at the sky — and who can blame them — he says, “Why are you looking up to heaven?” In other words, stop staring dumbly up into the sky and get to work. Our mission and ministry is right here, before us. It doesn’t make for a memorable acronym — “Why are you looking up to heaven? spells W.A.Y.L.U.T.H. But when we W.A.I.T. in our prayer lives and W.A.Y.L.U.T.H in our interactions with one another, it allows us, like the leaders of the early church, to fully engage the work we have been given to do.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck