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"Listening" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - March 3, 2019

posted Mar 4, 2019, 10:56 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

Just before the Academy Awards - and all the awards going to Greenbook - comedians Amber Ruffin and Seth Meyer released a spoof, a trailer for a movie called, “White Savior.”  If we had projection screens in the sanctuary, I’d be showing it now. But, instead, I’ll describe it. The trailer opens with a narrator saying in all seriousness, “This Spring, see the story of a black woman who became a world-renowned scientist, an accomplished cellist, and an activist, and a man who was white while she did it.”

From that opening, the trailer goes on to reference many of the recent films depicting African-American history, ones which tell of black struggles and white heroes.  The narrator extols the new film, saying at one point, “PEOPLE magazine says, ‘This movie is a triumph.’ And the black person it’s based on says, ‘This is not at all how it happened.'”

In one scene of the trailer, the narrator explains that the movie includes one cartoonishly racist white man so that other racist people can watch it and say, “well at least I’m not that racist.”  But, to offer hope to all white people, the narrator assures us that the black person becomes friends with the racist. When the racist “accepts” her, Amber Ruffin’s character replies, “Thanks Earl.  For some reason, earning your respect is something I’m interested in.”

Watching Amber Ruffin and Seth Meyer spoof so many recent films made me laugh; and made me see how often our society falls into the white savior trope.  The Seth Meyer White Savior character never really listened to Amber Ruffin in their scenes: at one point she stands at a blackboard filled with complicated math equations, Seth Meyer looks on as she completes the problem and compliments her on her ability, “You should get a job in [math].”  Amber responds, “I have one.” “You do? Where?” “Here. I’m your boss.” Laughing at this spoof while praying about our scriptures also made new connections for me between the work to decolonize our minds and the practice of listening, between the work for a just world for all the act of listening to one another.

The Transfiguration story comes across as a dramatic show.  According to Luke, Jesus’ face changed - we can only imagine how - and his clothes became dazzling white.  Now I’ve watched enough musical theater to know what it means when the lights change and cloths start to sparkle.  Song and dance time. On cue, two backup singers show up with Jesus: Moses and Elijah, basically celebrity cameos in the Jesus show.   As the song reached a high point, Peter stumbled in with an awkward comment that brought everything to a screeching halt. In eerie silence the fog machine pumped out a thick cloud as everyone looked away from Peter.  The director yelled from backstage, “Jesus is my star. Listen to him!”

I know the Church Universal is debating homosexuality, but it doesn’t take much to gay up the gospel.  But however we imagine the scene, I want us to pay attention to that closing line of God, “This is my son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

That line most stands out to me in the story: “Listen to him.”  At previous times in my spiritual journey, I heard that command as connected to Jesus’ divinity - God telling the disciples - and by extension us - to listen to Jesus because of his holiness.  That message still exists in this story. But over the years, life caused me to find another message in the text: the call to listen to Jesus as a person and, by extension, for us to listen to other people too.  What might change in our lives if we listened as a holy practice?

The call to listen becomes painfully necessary because, of course, the disciples did everything but listen.  The Gospels often portray Peter as the overeager disciple who didn’t quite get it; the Peter who saw Jesus walk on water so he jumped overboard and tried it himself.  And often his bumbling comment about making three structures, booths, gets lumped into Peter’s awkward eagerness.

But I see it as something else.  Jesus stood talking with Moses and Elijah.  Instead of listening, Peter interrupted. And what did he interrupt?  Jesus speaking about his upcoming death - his “departure” as the text delicately puts it.

Just before the scene of the Transfiguration, Jesus tried to talk about his impending death to the disciples.  (It didn’t take divine powers of prediction to guess that his rabble-rousing group proclaiming release to the captives and justice to the poor would end up in trouble with the authorities.)  As Jesus spoke his mind that time, naming his fears of suffering and death, Peter also interrupted, took him aside, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

Peter couldn’t listen to Jesus talk about his death.  And so, whenever the conversation turned to this, Peter interrupted.  He couldn’t listen to Jesus’ pain. One time, Peter interrupted by telling Jesus not to talk that way.  At the Transfiguration, he interrupted with an off-topic solution to a problem no one faced.

Peter tried to silence Jesus’ pain.  Which makes the imperative voice from heaven even more clear: “Listen to him!”

Of course, James and John didn’t do any better.  The sons of thunder - as they were known - didn’t rumble when Jesus spoke.  But did they listen to what he said? Their silence may seem like listening, but after the Transfiguration, down the mountain, word spread among the disciples that Jesus would die.  And what did they do? Start arguing among themselves about who would take charge next, casting lots for his mantle of leadership.

James and John went one further than the disciples, though.  They took Jesus aside, to ask, “When you come into your kingdom” - that is, when you die - “can we sit at your right and your left?” - that is, can you make us your successors?  How it pained Jesus to have his closest disciples not listen to him. I hear that in his reply, “You do not know what you ask.”

Have you had those moments in your life?  Those moments when you just want to be heard?  But instead, someone interrupts because they can’t hear your pain?  Offering to solve a problem you don’t have? Or just moving blithely past your feelings to think about what comes next?

I remember once - years ago, when my kids were little enough to carry them around - I shared some parenting anxieties with a friend.  I don’t remember which son I worried about; and I don’t even remember the worry. But I do remember how my friend responded. Solution time.  Instead of sitting with my uncertainty or hearing my confusion or holding me in the midst of unknowns; she offered solutions. “This is what you need to do,” frankly, never a good start.  And then she explained her theory of children’s nutrition (figuring out how to feed my kids was not my worry), which involved never feeding children vegetables that grew down into the ground because children needed to grow up towards the sky.  But I didn’t need to replace potato chips with kale chips. I just needed to be heard.

And in sharing that story, I know I’ve also been the friend who didn’t listen.  There are people here to whom I’ve had to apologize for not really hearing them.

I imagine that all of us can think of both times we were not heard and times when we’ve struggled to truly listen.  And, in some ways, our reading from Paul can help us think through our challenges.

I love this passage because of one line, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”  It speaks to me of a spirituality of changing lives: each of us transformed “from glory to glory.”

At the same time, I’ve long struggled with Paul’s condemnation of Jewish people in this same text, of people he called hard-hearted and veiled.  The claim of superiority falls flat. I don’t agree with Paul’s condemnations - not here, not elsewhere. Behind his bravado, one could hear the pain of someone rejected by his family of faith.  Paul still thought of himself as Jewish; but we see him moving out into a new faith. Paul’s dismissal of those who disagree with him, also comes as a warning to us. Paul couldn’t listen to why people didn’t agree with him; instead, he dismissed them as hard-hearted.  And so, what is for me a painful passage is also a place in the text where we see how hurt and hurtful people can be around listening.

In the midst of this, there is a power to Paul’s metaphor of people being veiled, covering their eyes so they do not see.  We use the same metaphor when we talk about “lens.” As in, “with what lens do you see a problem?” In a similar way, we can think about the ways we cover our ears.  Peter, James, and John each covered their ears from hearing Jesus’ pain. What emotions do we block out? What voices do we filter out? What things can we not bear to be said?

The importance of deeply listening and the challenge of it became sadly apparent to me in the coverage of the recent United Methodist Church Conference in St. Louis.  The conference came as yet another debate in the Methodist tradition around sexuality, same-sex marriage, and the ordination of LGBT people. As you know, the conference adopted a “Traditional Plan” that reinforced the existing rules banning LGBT leadership and celebrations of same-sex marriage and added new penalties for those who break the rules.

Many in our congregation watched this with interest - people shaped by the Methodist Church, LGBT people.

As the impact of the conference filtered out, I heard a rush of comments.   Well intentioned, I’m sure. But the rush to move an LGBT or ally from the Methodist Church to somewhere else can feel as unhelpful as Peter suggesting shelter when Jesus needed to talk about his pain.

Another common response was to assure LGBT people of God’s love.  Loey Powell, a former leader of our movement’s women’s equality efforts, spoke recently of the concern this raised for her.

What I need to say is that those of us who are lgbtqia are strong, self-loving, and not in need of the approval of the straight community to be who we are...So when someone says what has happened in the UMC will cause harm to us....yes, part of that is true but more than hurt, we are [angry]. And being [angry] does not come from a place of feeling less than, it comes from a place of strength. We are strong. We already know in the deepest parts of our beings that we are loved by a Love far greater than what we can comprehend.”

Loey’s comments - which resonated with me - point to the importance of listening with an open ear and responding not with affirmations but questions, “How do you feel?”  Our friends need us to hold space for their emotions, whatever they are.

We often speak up for issues of justice in our congregation.  But this week - between the parody of “White Savior” by Amber Ruffin and Seth Meyer to the United Methodist Conference, I realized the importance of listening in our work.  Just as God called Peter, James, and John to listen to Jesus; I think God calls us to profoundly practice listening in our lives.  Listening in prayer to Jesus, certainly; but also to listen - as Peter, James, and John struggled to - to listen to other people in our lives, whatever emotions they feel, not solving the problem, but holding space for what they feel.  To listen well is holy work. Alleluia and Amen.