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Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: “Deep Listening”

 

Exodus 12:1-14

Romans 13:8-14

Matthew 18:15-20 

 

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” When you hear this instruction in Matthew’s Gospel, do you cringe the way I do?

 

I’m not sure which person I’d least like to be in this situation: the one who has to point out the fault (that seems dangerous) or the one on the receiving end of the criticism (that seems painful). And what are the odds, do you think, that this conversation will turn out well?

 

The best-case scenario we hear is that the person at fault listens, and then it’s all over. But someone gracefully, humbly, listening to an account of their sins? That’s a long shot. More likely, we predict, the conflict’s going to escalate, so we get an account of how to manage it, step by step.

 

We end up with a worst-case scenario: the member at fault, who never listened, is ejected from the church, which never found a way to be heard. But wait. Isn’t this a Christian community we’re talking about? Shouldn’t we be more hopeful that the first conversation between the church members will go well?

 

Maybe our reaction is revealing. Are we, like the first-century Christians who developed these community guidelines, still struggling with how to handle conflict?

 

The way to harmony should be clear. Our teacher Jesus gave us the key: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

 

And Paul underlines this in his letter to the early Christians trying to form one body in Rome: wake up; stop quarreling; love each other. When you’ve done that, you will have fulfilled all the commandments. You will have put on the Lord Jesus Christ. You will have lived into his compassionate nature—and your own.

 

But, as clear as this direction is, Christians are still quarreling, still finding it hard to listen to each other, still finding it hard to express our love.

 

But I want to say this morning that what I see at St. Patrick’s makes me hopeful for our community’s harmony. Because as hard as it is to live in peace, we have regular exercises of meditation, worship, and fellowship that help us practice loving presence and empathy and compassionate communication. And then carry those skills out into the world.

 

Let’s go back to the church conflict scenario that we read about in Matthew. The fatal breakdown at each step? An inability to listen—the essential gateway for communication.

 

It’s a spiritual practice to learn to remain open and attentive to another person, to receive their message without automatically defending, withdrawing, or attacking—even in the face of judgment or criticism. Listening is an act of love.

 

Having the restraint and patience to focus on the person in front of us, in the moment, paying attention to what they need and feel, strengthens our ability to stay present, to stay connected.

 

How do we learn to do that? Well, our meditation practices here at St. Patrick’s are essentially listening practices.

 

In her book Conversation—the Sacred Art: Practicing Presence in an Age of Distraction, Diane Millis notes that the mind without spiritual training can only focus on anything or anyone for no more than two minutes.[1]

 

But by training our minds, learning to listen to our own hearts, letting go of our controlling agendas, we can become more skilled in staying focused in difficult conversations. This, I believe, is the way we begin to put on the armor of light.

 

Next, I’m hopeful for harmony because in our Eucharist each week we practice acts of empathy that profoundly strengthen our bonds of love. When we extend the message of peace to each other (“The Peace of the Lord be always with you. And with thy Spirit/And also with you”), we acknowledge that whatever our differences, whatever our disagreements, whatever our divergent paths in life, we all long for the same things: safety, happiness, health, freedom from suffering and fear . . . for God’s peace that passes all understanding.

 

And each week as we reach out and bless each other this way, friend or stranger, we build awareness of our common humanity. Awareness that leads to our joining together in a sacred meal at a common table, sharing love without condition.

 

Carrying this practice of empathy into moments of potential conflict gives us great power as Christians. We don’t have to go into immediate disconnect when an angry person with an angry message is in front of us. We can take a pause. Just for a beat. And remind ourselves, “Like me, this person only wants peace.” Try it!

 

What an amazing power of awareness we’re building here in community, in worship, week after week. This is the way, I believe, we begin to wake up.

 

Finally, I’m hopeful for harmony because of the compassionate communication we’re practicing in our new “Table Talk” groups. The idea is simple: sit down at a table with church members,

share good food, and talk from the heart about your experience of life and what you’ve learned from it. Trust that you will be seen and heard. And practice the same deep listening to others—without trying to convince or correct, without trying to fix or judge.

 

This is a rare blessing in any kind of community today: family, school, church, workplace, or nation. To experience a circle of acceptance and cooperation. And be held in it.

 

This is the way, I believe, we begin to feel the power of Jesus among us, whenever two or three are gathered in his name.

 

I felt that power in the first “Table Talk” gathering on Friday night, when not two or three but twelve of us gathered to share our thoughts about the meaning of life. My sincere thanks to Cindy Boudett for suggesting this grand topic and to her and Bruce for hosting the evening.

 

Our conversation was heartfelt and personal; our points of view varied. But as my table partners Lainie and Bob and Cindy all remarked to me as we closed, the meaning of life we all expressed in our own language was love. We had put on the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

So in this Age of Distraction and conflict, when the works of darkness can seem overwhelming, I encourage you to come more closely into our church community as an incubator for love. Prepare to build a better world—like the Israelites preparing to leave Egypt.

 

We can practice love together, experience conflict, listen deeply to each other, and try again.

 

We can practice reaching out to each other over and over with loving presence, empathy, and compassion—so that we gain even more power to reach out to the world, beyond these church walls.

 

Because this is the commandment we are called to fulfill as Christians in a world of conflict: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

 

I close with a prayer for our community from Jay Mc Daniel:  

 

Our deepest hope, our most tender prayer,

Is that we learn to listen.

May we listen to one another in openness and mercy.

May we listen to plants and animals in wonder and respect.

May we listen to our own hearts in love and forgiveness.

May we listen to God in quietness and awe.

And in this listening,

Which is boundless in its beauty,

May we find the wisdom to cooperate

With a healing spirit, a divine spirit

Who beckons us into peace and community and creativity.

We do not ask for a perfect world,

But we do ask for a better world.

We ask for deep listening.[2]  Amen.

 

~ Rev. Clare C. Novak, Interfaith Associate for Parish Life

St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Incline Village, Nevada

September 7, 2014



[1] Diane M. Millis, Conversation—the Sacred Art: Practicing Presence in an Age of Distraction (Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths, 2013), p. 43.

[2] Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon, eds., Prayers for a Thousand Years (New York: HarperOne, 1999), p. 130.