This is the sermon I didn't get to preach last Sunday due to an ice storm which kept me home. It is based on three scriptures from the book of Mark (1:35, 6:45-46, 14:32).
When I was a little girl, my father and I had a daily ritual which began when he would come home each noontime for an hour to eat his lunch with my mother and me. While my mother was preparing our egg salad sandwiches, my father would take me into the living room for our noontime confab, which I assume now was an attempt to rescue my mother for at least an hour from a spirited only child. Dad would ask about my morning. I’d ask about his day at work. I’d tell him about who I had seen on the Captain Kangaroo show while I was eating breakfast, he’d tell me which of his parishioners stopped in for coffee at the church. I’d put on a mini-show for him. He’d show me a magic trick. Every day it was the same routine with a little different variation. Father-daughter time.
One day, my father came home during the noontime hour preoccupied and overwhelmed. It was during the Watergate scandal I believe, and while my mother was putting lunch on the table, my father hunkered down in his reading chair with the newspaper, trying to catch up on the latest national news. This was not a normal day. As many times as I would try to get my father’s attention, he would answer from behind his Journal Gazette with only a half-hearted “hmmmm” or an uninterested “Oh, really?” I watched him expectantly with all the impatience and righteous indignation that a precocious four-year-old can muster, climbed into his lap, patted the paper down underneath me and sat on it, and then took his whiskered cheeks in my little hands, turned his face toward me and said, “Daddy, you must look at me when I talk to you. I need to know you’re listening!”
The Gospel of Mark is a unique one. It is, by all accounts, the earliest written Gospel message, and it is terse to the point of annoyance at times, for a word-lover like me. It is the shortest of the four Gospels and it records fewer of the words that Jesus spoke as well. The Jesus that we find in Mark is busy. He’s always moving. He’s always acting. He’s always on the go. Reading Mark is like watching a movie on fast-forward. Jesus has marathon days where he heals, teaches, prophesies, performs miracles, walks on water, argues with Pharisees, travels from town to town to town, feeds multitudes, makes disciples and welcomes children (sigh) all before noon and all without breaking a sweat. Surely this Jesus could rub his tummy and pat his head at the same time, all the while whistling Great is Thy Faithfulness. He’s one of those kind of guys, an up and comer of sorts. In fact, Mark’s favorite word, used over 40 times in this short book, is the Greek word meaning “immediately” or “at once.” Mark tells us over and over again, “First Jesus went here, and now look, immediately he did this.” That Jesus was an activist is inarguable. But even in this account of Jesus’ life, we have glimpses of the contemplative side of this one who was himself the Word incarnate.
At several points in Mark’s account, Jesus finds ways to go away, whether it be with others or alone, to do some listening of his own, rather just that immediate speaking. At critical points in his ministry, Jesus finds his way to a quiet place to connect himself to the one who named him “The Word.” Even in the midst of all the action, there is the need to some profound listening. And those of you who are introverts in this sanctuary can’t tell me that that doesn’t allow you to breathe a sigh of relief. Mark tells of a whirlwind day early in Jesus’ ministry, shortly after his baptism where after recruiting some disciples, and teaching in the synagogue, and healing a friends’ mother-in-law, and then having a rally to heal all the sick, he found a place to sleep and awoke while it was still dark and went out to a deserted place to pray. And then there was another time, when after encouraging his disciples to practice self-care and find some space for themselves to pray he realized that there were hungry crowds and he multiplied the food and sent the disciples out on the water for some R&R so that he could again make his way alone to listen and pray on a mountain. And, let’s not forget that on the night he was betrayed, he asked his disciples to stay awake, while he went off by himself to pray. Jesus, the Word incarnate, models for us the need to listen ourselves.
And while this would seem like a simple task, while each of us know that we are each skilled at listening to others, and even perhaps to the nudgings of our God, I would wager that we’re not as good at it as we may think. I would wager, that what most of us are doing is the passive act of hearing, rather than the ever so active task of truly listening, and there is a world of difference between those two.
Several years ago, I went with a group of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders for an overnight retreat experience at a nature preserve. One of the group activities while we were there was to sit outside on a sunny June day with our eyes closed and listen to what we heard around us. After several minutes of this listening, we were given paper and pencils and asked to write or draw the sounds we heard on the paper. I was amazed at the variety of noise which surrounded me as I participated with them. I was aware of the noise which I simply filter out each day, or don’t consider. I sat under a tree that day and listened with new ears to the voice of God. I did more than merely hear. I noted bird calls, and airplane sounds, wind in the trees, and the distant sound of a dog’s bark. True listening opened me and startled me awake.
I confess freely that I am not one who hears the voice of God on a regular basis. Or ever, for that matter. And that doesn’t mean I haven’t deeply desired that kind of response. I remember lamenting to a spiritual director several years ago the doubt I have, and the deep yearning I have for the heavens to open and a booming voice to tell me exactly what it is that I should do in a given situation. And her response was, “Christen, perhaps God doesn’t do that anymore in our culture because God doesn’t have to. Perhaps we’re capable of being attune enough to God that God can afford to be subtle.”
I despised that response at the time for it’s lack of immediate gratification and direction from a Creator, but confess that it has grown on me in the years after and now provides me with hope. Perhaps God’s actions and purposes are so subtle around me, that when I stomp through them like a bulldozer demanding definite answers I miss those slight nuances. Perhaps when as a community or individual we listen only to the shoulds and oughts of our society, or when we remain afraid of truly opening our hearts to the subtleties and whispers of our Creator, but assert our own haughty opinions we are missing the deeper truth of Jesus’ message.
Sometimes I have a vision of God, standing like the four-year-old that I was, impatiently tapping a foot and waiting, waiting for us to pay attention. Sometimes I imagine God folding down my newspaper of a daily life, and putting gentle hands on my face and steering me to look anew into the eyes of my Creator, while a loving voice says, “Christen, you must look at me when I talk to you. You must listen.”
Friends, as we enter the mystery of the Lenten season, as we allow it to have it’s way with us, we are surrounded by the mystery of the ever-present Word. It seems as appropriate a time to listen as ever. And so, come away, come to a quiet place and find balance that we may each know our God anew.