Sunday, September 12, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
watch this service online (readings start around 20:02; sermon starts around 27:23)
One morning, when I was in high school, I was hanging out in the school’s computer lab. I was about sixteen years old; it was my junior year, and I was by far the fastest typer in my class – because unlike many of the other students, I actually bothered to practice. I was deep in the middle of one of the typing lessons when one of my younger brother’s friends – Mason Kalin – came into the lab. He saw me sitting back in a corner of the lab and came over to talk to me. I was kind of annoyed by this – I was trying to concentrate on what I was doing! So I only kind of half-listened as Mason started going on and on about whatever it was he was talking about. It sounded like maybe he was talking about one of the video games he and my brother had been playing recently – all kinds of explosions and chaos and who knows what else – I was pretty sure I had already heard my brother going on and on about it at home, so I didn’t feel like I really needed to hear it again.
Eventually Mason wandered off and I went back to my typing. After a while, the bell rang, and I closed out of the computer and gathered my stuff and prepared to go to my next class. But when I stepped out into the hallway, it was like a ghost town. Nobody was at their lockers, nobody else was walking to their next class – it was weird. So I walked down the hall a little ways to try to find out what was going on. And I discovered that everyone – students, staff, faculty – the entire school was all crammed into the library; and they all had their eyes glued to the TV. I walked in to see what was going on – and I got there just in time to watch the second tower fall.
Mason was trying to tell me that something terrible had happened – something none of us had ever imagined could happen – but I wasn’t listening. I heard him – in the physical sense that sound waves from his voice hit my ears and sent signals to my brain – but I didn’t listen, I didn’t receive what he was saying. I was full of my own assumptions, thinking that I knew already what it was that Mason was going to say to me, and those assumptions got in the way of me actually listening to hear what he truly said.
And on top of that, the news that he was telling me was something that belonged in a video game or in a movie. A terrorist attack on the United States – planes crashing into buildings, an attack that caused so much devastation and destruction and loss of life – that’s not the kind of thing you want to believe is real life. So when Mason started telling me the news, I didn’t really listen. It was news I didn’t want to be true.
I feel like the disciples are having a similar sort of rude awakening in our gospel reading for this morning. They have been following Jesus around for a while now – they’ve heard his teachings, they’ve watched him perform miracles and heal people and cast out demons – but now, the disciples are abruptly learning that this mission they’re on is about to get a whole lot more dangerous and deadly than they ever expected. They have come into this with their own set of assumptions and expectations – in fact, we hear some of them at the beginning of this passage. Jesus asks them two questions: “Who do people say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” – and they are quick to respond: John the Baptist! Elijah! One of the prophets! The Messiah!! It seems clear that they see Jesus as this mighty figure marching his way toward the seats of power to go kick butt and take names.
So they aren’t prepared to hear it when Jesus instead starts talking about suffering, and rejection, and death. He makes it clear that he is not marching toward some glorious military victory; he is marching toward his own execution. It’s such horrible news to the disciples that they don’t want to believe that this could be true. So rather than fully listen to what Jesus is saying, Peter pulls Jesus aside and starts arguing with him, telling him not to say such terrible things. Peter and the disciples and the whole people of Israel have been waiting for generations for the coming of God’s promised Messiah – they have been waiting for the Messiah that the prophets long foretold would come and save them. To them, this just can’t be it – this can’t be the way that things will go down. The Messiah they’re expecting is supposed to restore the throne of David – how could God instead allow him to suffer and die?? This is not at all how the Israelites hoped or expected this all would go.
But if you’ve read much of the rest of the bible – or really if you’re just a person of faith for any length of time – you probably already know that this is often the way it is with God. God often works in ways that we don’t expect or even understand. And sometimes that really sucks. It really does. Especially when we are dealing with hard times – with difficult situations and tragedy and grief – it’s hard to get on board with a God who doesn’t do things the way that we think God should.
But even when we don’t understand what God is doing, God’s work in our lives is always for our good. And sometimes God’s greatest blessings come from God not doing the things we think God should be doing (something that often only becomes clear in retrospect). You can probably think back to times in your own lives when an unanswered prayer turned out to be a blessing. I know in my life I can think of a few prayers I prayed desperately; if they had been answered the way I had hoped for in that moment, I might never have ended up in ministry at all!
In the case of Jesus and the disciples, Jesus disappoints the disciples’ expectation that he will take back Israel and conquer the violence of the Roman Empire through more and greater violence. Instead, Jesus refuses to fight back, even when it means giving up his own life. He could easily have done it, could have easily fought – even Satan, when he was tempting Jesus in the wilderness, acknowledged that hosts of angels would have come to Jesus’ aid if he had asked for it. But instead, Jesus – God made flesh – chooses to interrupt the cycle of violence instead of adding to it. Rather than trying to impose God’s will on people by force, Jesus listens and leads with love.
God in Christ sets us a better example of how to relate to one another and to God – an example we sorely need in such a violent world as the one we live in. As humans, we often struggle to truly listen to one another and to listen to God. We may be able to physically hear just fine, but real, deep listening is more than that: listening means having a receptive attitude of heart, a desire to fully understand someone else. As the prayer of St. Francis puts it, true listening is “seeking not so much to be understood as to understand.” But like me with Mason, or the disciples with Jesus, it’s easy to let our assumptions get in the way of really listening to one another. And it’s easy to tune out the things we don’t want to hear – or to tune out the people we don’t want to hear from. And this lack of listening inevitably leads us to division – and division leads us right back into the same old cycle of violence and suffering and death.
God’s example stands in stark contrast to this. The psalmist joyfully writes: “I love the Lord, who has heard my voice, and listened to my supplication, for the Lord has given ear to me whenever I called. The cords of death entangled me; the anguish of the grave came upon me; I came to grief and sorrow. Then I called upon the name of the Lord: ‘O Lord, I pray you, save my life.’ Gracious is the Lord and righteous; our God is full of compassion.” God comes to us with caring love and understanding, even when we are in the wrong; God listens to us from the heart.
And God invites us to be imitators of this kind of compassionate listening – to let go of our assumptions and instead “listen as those who are taught,” as Isaiah writes, to listen like we expect to hear something worth hearing. God invites us to practice deep listening both in our prayers and in our daily lives with one another.
So I invite you to consider: how can you open the ears of your heart this week? How can you let go of your assumptions and hear the truth, even if it’s truth you don’t want to hear? How can you make space inside your heart and in your prayers for both God and your neighbor, so that you may really, truly listen?