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"Listening, the Spirit’s Gift" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - May 20, 2018

posted May 22, 2018, 7:48 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

I don’t do much on Twitter; but a few years ago I had set up an account.  And though I don’t follow many people and have even fewer followers, I did somehow end up getting notifications during the last presidential election from the Tennessee GOP.  @TenGop tweeted articles that pressed all my partisan buttons; aggravating tweets I completely disagreed with. And these tweets just hardened my heart against the GOP and made me feel like I had nothing in common with those across the aisle.

Eventually I figured out how to clear @TenGop from my twitter notifications.  And I didn’t think about it again, until this winter when the Mueller investigation revealed @TenGop to be one of many twitter handles used by the Russians to try to influence our elections and society.  Which made me wonder about the ways I had been influenced; not in my voting but in how I viewed my neighbors.

This question became even more real as I learned more about Russian meddling.  For instance, two years ago, in the led up to the election, Russia used social media to organize an “anti-Islam” protest in Texas.  It agitated and energized people with fears Muslims would impose Sharia law. The so-called “Heart of Texas” got people to show up outside a Houston Mosque; a crowd of people with Confederate flags and “God Save America” signs.

The same Russian trolls also created an account for “United Muslims of America,” which called for a counter-protest.  And counter-protesters did show up, carrying signs about loving their Muslim neighbors and “Hate is not a Family Value.”  

Passions rode high for both the protesters and the counter-protesters, egged on by Russian trolls who tried to gin up each side to “battle in the streets.”

In many ways, the Russian trolls acted out a negative version of the Pentecost story.  The early disciples awoke one morning and, moved to overcome their fears, left the safety of their upper room to share the story of Jesus.  Miraculously the crowd understood; despite the differences in their languages, the people on the street heard the message of the disciples; a gift of the Holy Spirit.

We’ve experienced a different kind of spirit active in the words of Russian trolls; a malevolent spirit, which united us not in understanding but in animosity; a dis-spiriting Pentecost that continues to inflame our hostility.  

The Russian trolls who spoke to every side and any side in our society spoke directly to our hearts, communicating not one message but evoking a common feeling: anger.  You see it in pictures of the protesters and counter-protesters outside the Texas mosque: people speaking different political languages but held together in their outrage.

Thinking about those Russian trolls this Spring led me to hear the Pentecost story in a new way.  In the past, I always thought of the miracle as tied to the act of speaking. Peter spoke. Everyone understood.  And indeed, the text suggests this way of understanding the miracle when the crowd said to one another:

“Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”


And yet, I’ve come to see the miracle not as one of speech but as one of listening.  Peter spoke with his heavy, Galilean accent; the rustic timber of a hardworking fisherman; vowels rolling like the waves.  Yet in his voice the crowd heard, they listened, they knew something beyond the words he used.

Understanding Pentecost as a miracle of listening moves us back to ancient understandings of spirituality.  Jews - even to this day - regularly recite a prayer called the Shema. It comes from the Book of Deuteronomy, where God instructed them to recite twice a day, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one.”  Normally, we focus on the second part of that phrase, the affirmation of monotheism which so distinguished Jews from their neighbors. But, as I read through scripture, I’m struck by how often it reverberates with the command to hear.  Indeed, we might consider the posture of listening to be at the heart of Biblical spirituality, embodied in the advice to approach God, saying, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

What would change in our lives if we focused less on what we wanted to say and instead gave more attention to just listening?  Saying in prayer: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” And in our most intimate relationships: “Speak, love, I am listening.”  And with our friends: “Speak, for I am listening.” I think it could be miraculous - spiritually and relationally - if we spent more time listening than speaking.

I love the vivid pictures of hell the poet Dante created centuries ago.  I love these poems not because I think he accurately imagined the afterlife, but because he so truly named the hell we can make of relationships and the hope for something better.  

As the poet Dante made his journey through the underworld, he came at one point to the place were heretics dwelled.  Dante didn’t develop a dogmatic notion of heresy; instead, the heretics he met reflected the root meaning of the word.  Heresy comes from the Greek word “to choose” or “to divide.” People in the time of Dante looked back to the story of the soldiers gambling for the clothing of Jesus; dividing his belonging and choosing by lot who would get his cloak.  And so, heresy spoke to the kind of choosing and divisions that break community.

In hell, Dante met two famous partisans of Florence; men whose acrimony divided the city.  One, Farinata Degli Uberti, led the party of the Ghibellines; and another, Cavalcante dei Cavalcanti, belonged to the rival Guelph faction.  These two groups constantly fought for control of Florence; when the Ghibellines were in power, they exiled the Guelph’s; then the Guelphs came back, they sent the Ghibellines away.  They divided the city; heretics who believed only they had the truth.

But in hell, Dante found both Farinata and Cavalcante sharing one tomb.  Except, these two souls couldn’t talk to Dante at the same time. Instead, one would pop up from the tomb to talk to Dante and then the other would rise, forcing the other back down.  They spent eternity enacting their dance of partisan power; never speaking to each other, always working to silence the other.

And there, in that image of two politicians bound in the same tomb but unable to be present at the same time, Dante gave us a powerful image of the hell that comes when we refuse to listen.

Dante paused on his journey long enough to engage both Farinata and Cavalcante in conversation.  With Farinata, who led the party Dante opposed, the poet now listened to him with respect, almost reverence.  One senses it in the description he provided of Farinata:

My eyes were fixed on him already.  Erect,

He rose above the flame, great chest, great brow;

He seemed to hold all Hell in disrespect.

And in case Dante wasn’t ready to honor Farinata, his guide underscored the need for respect by saying, “Mind how you speak to him.”  All of this emphasis on respect contrasted with how Florence treated Farinata: sent into exile by the Guelphs, he died; and later, to add insult to injury, the Guelph’s exhumed his body, burned it, and excommunicated him.  But now, Dante does what should have happened before: he listened respectfully to his political opposite.

The need to listen only got further emphasized when Cavalcante rose from the tomb.  While Farinata towered high, Cavalcante can only peer over the side. But he asked about his son, Dante’s best friend.  Back in Florence, after the Guelphs seized control from the Ghibellines, they split into two factions, the White and the Black.  People in Florence looked to Dante to help restore order after the White and Black Guelphs came to blows; and he decided to exile the leaders of each group, which meant exiling his best friend.  So, when Cavalcante asked about his son, Dante spoke of the son in the past tense and Cavalcante thought him dead. He disappeared back into the tomb, encased in grief.

Cavalcante’s sorrow came because he didn’t listen; he didn’t listen to Dante explain the exile.  Next Farinata rose again. Which gave Dante a chance to give him a message of hope; “Now, therefore, will you tell that fallen one who asked about his son, that he is not dead.”  

And so, this powerful image of partisan rancor ends with the possibility: Farinata will talk with Cavalcante, Guelph will listen to Ghibelline, the red and blue of Florence finding a peace.

But of course, we don’t need to look back to Dante and partisan strife in Florence to feel the danger of what happens when we don’t listen.  We know it all to familiarly in our own lives.

Which is why I’ve come to think of the gift of listening as the work of the Spirit.  I want you to think of a moment when someone truly, deeply listened to you. A time when you could share your thoughts or your silences and be heard.

As I think about those times in my life, a few common characteristics become clear.  The person who listened was curious instead of defensive. Curious about what I thought, curious about what I would say, curious about what I felt.  All of which is different from the quick to judge, defensiveness we can often get trapped in. And even when not overt, too often we think about what we will say next instead of hearing what was said.  But the curious listener, that’s a gift.

Even in an argument, curiosity turns the tone of the conversation.  Judgment proclaims, “How can you think that!”  But curiosity wants to know, “Why do you think that?”

Relatedly, the people who’ve most listened to me, listen because they don’t know the answer.  Do you know what I mean? Sometimes it seems like someone is listening, but then you find they’re just waiting to give you their answer: to tell you what to do, ready to fix a problem you haven’t begun to describe.  But true listeners listen because they don’t know the answer. Instead of waiting to answer, they wonder and wait. Which might be why good listeners are often so good with silences. Wonder emerges in silence like stars in the dark sky.  

These two qualities of listening can be found in the crowd on that first Pentecost: they were curious, they wondered.  And I think in their listening, curiosity, and wonderment we can see the movement of the Holy Spirit.

Our continuing testament reading from Langston Hughes points to this need to listen.  He wrote about the two most familiar American synonyms: freedom and liberty; which we can seem so close in our patriotic lexicon as to be interchangeable.  But he teases out a gulf: “There are words like Freedom, Sweet and wonderful to say” and “There are words like Liberty, That almost make me cry.”  Such emotion packed between two synonyms demands my curiosity and wonder, a listening.  Because, “If you had known what I knew, You would know why.”

The miracle of Pentecost comes in this: our listening to what each other has known.  The listening of an international crowd to Peter. The listening of one lover to another.  The listening of one friend to another.

This Pentecost may we experience this miracle in our own lives, the miracle of curiosity and wonder; may we be people who say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”  Alleluia and Amen.