Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18, Year B)

Proper 18, Year B
September 10, 2000
Old St. Paul’s, Baltimore
The Rev. Timothy E. Schenck

Like many of my fellow men, I have an amazingly uncanny ability to listen without really hearing.  I’m not sure if this is an innate gift, honed over thousands of years to an art form, or whether it’s a learned trait; but regardless of its origins it is a definite reality. I can hold down conversations on a wide variety of topics, inserting the appropriate grunts of affirmation and acknowledgment, while simultaneously reading the sports section of the Baltimore Sun. It’s quite amazing actually. At least until I invariably foul it up by asking my wife a question about something she just moments before told me about.      And, once again, I get caught red-handed listening but not really hearing.

You might even call it selective listening. If there was a topic of great interest to me I would probably hear it. If not it ends up being filtered out. Good gossip seems to come straight through but discussing what colors we’re going to paint the nursery tends to fade into the background. Now I don’t think that men actually stand alone in the realm of selective listening. This may be something that we’ve all had to learn because of the constant crazy clutter of our culture. We’re so bombarded with images, voices, and noises each day that we need to select which ones we should pay attention to and which ones we should ignore. Sometimes the choice is a simple one: should I watch the Orioles game or should I read a book? Actually, with the invention of the mute button I’m quite qualified to do both. The difficult choice becomes when we ask ourselves, should I watch the Orioles game or sit in silence to listen for God’s voice? Should I put on NPR when I drive to work or should I do some silent reflection about my life?

The problem with all of the images and distractions in life is when God’s voice becomes just another sound competing for our attention. When God’s voice becomes lost, we become lost as individuals and as a community. And it’s just as easy to filter out God’s message as it is to hit that mute button on the remote control. It becomes a great temptation to listen to God but not really hear God.

That’s also why silence is so important. If we shut our eyes and ears to the distractions of life, it gives us time to reflect, renew, and reach out to God. Silence is so counter-cultural that when we are alone with God and our own thoughts the silence can sometimes be deafening. It’s a lot easier to tune God out than to face some of the difficult things we’re asked to do in life. But we also can’t fully know God’s love unless we tune into God, enter into a deeper relationship with God, and offer ourselves up to the fulfilling of God’s purpose in our lives.

To hear, to truly hear, is to understand. It’s much easier to merely listen to God than it is to truly hear God. And to hear the word of God in our lives is not merely to listen to it but to inwardly digest it so that God’s message becomes part of who we are and how we act.      We must ask ourselves at various times in our lives whether we are merely listening to God or truly hearing God. 

And sitting in church doesn’t make us immune to this. Even sitting in these pews and worshiping in this beautiful space does not make us immune to listening but not hearing God’s voice. The liturgical tradition that draws us together also holds an inherent danger.      The words can become too familiar, too comfortable so that we listen to them without really hearing them. There is a difference, for instance, between reciting the Lord’s Prayer and truly praying it. It’s certainly okay to allow the words to wash over us – some days that’s all we can handle. But our liturgy is more than beautiful phrases, wonderful music, and hopefully decent preaching. It’s a reflection of who we are, what we believe, and how we serve God. When we listen to God’s word but don’t hear it we miss Jesus’ radical call to love, serve, and include. When this message becomes blurry or indistinct, we have a major problem.

Fortunately, we have help here. When Jesus opens the ears of the deaf man in this morning’s gospel, he demonstrates his power to open our ears as well. Jesus helps us to cross that boundary from listening but not hearing to hearing, understanding, and knowing God. Jesus is our “hearing aid.” The one who amplifies God’s voice and presence in our lives. The life of the man in this story was transformed by his encounter with Jesus not because his hearing was restored but because of his new relationship with God through Jesus. He was able to hear God’s voice in his life not through his ears but through his heart. And when God breaks through to us, through all of the distractions of life, we are made whole. The blind hear, the lame leap, the mute speak, the deaf hear and God comes through loud and clear.

I’m not sure how it got to be September. I’m not sure where the summer went. I know that I’m a lot busier all of a sudden and I have much more to plan and do. But the call to “hear” pierces through the din of our over-scheduled lives, it shatters the complacency of our everyday existence, and it breaks the bonds of our own self-sufficiency. “Hear O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” It’s no mystery why this one verse of text from The Book of Deuteronomy is so central to the Jewish faith. The Great Shema, as it’s known based on the Hebrew word “hear,” is cited every morning and evening by devout Jews. We do well to reflect upon the Great Shema as the starting point of all else in our lives. To hear, to understand, that God is the source of all life is a basic tenet of our faith.      “Hear O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” As the school year starts, as family vacations fade into distant memories, and as jobs lose any semblance of the summer lull, to hear God’s voice in our lives becomes even more important.

Jesus asks us to hear God’s voice. Sometimes dramatically, sometimes quietly. But he asks us to hear. To hear that God is present in our midst, to hear God’s message of love, to hear the joy of relationship with the living God. May you hear, receive, and accept Christ’s love.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2001 

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