Learning to Listen/Listening to Learn

September 20, 2020
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

1 Samuel 3:1-10; Luke 2:41-52

The account of Jesus spending time in the Temple with the elders was one of my favorite scripture stories when I was a boy. My Children’s Bible had a picture of 12-year old Jesus standing in front of several older men, waving his arms as if instructing them, the elders paying rapt attention.

As a kid in a church run mostly by older men – one of whom was my father, in his 40s…so old! – I readily identified with that image of Jesus: there he was, stepping up and taking on those who were supposed to know everything, teaching them as if he knew more than they did. It was slightly rebellious, and empowering for a kid with scant authority in the church.

But when I became a parent, my view of that story shifted: what in the world were Joseph and Mary doing, leaving Jesus behind? Setting off for home without their child? Not noticing for a couple days that he wasn’t there? The sheer negligence shocked me, once we had a child of our own. Why didn’t someone call Child Protective Services? Why weren’t they panicking? I remember when our kids disappeared into some massive play structure in a park for a few minutes and I was terrified. It was five days before they finally found Jesus in the Temple.

As a preacher with a better grasp of cultural differences I came to see that the story reflects a much more community-oriented social structure than our hyper-individualized family and parental systems today. Apparently, back then it took a village to raise a child. Mary and Joseph only notice Jesus is not among the people after two days because they assume a neighbor had him in their care on the long walk back to Nazareth.

One reason I enjoy preaching is that scripture is so dynamic. We may think it is fixed and there’s nothing new to be wrung from it, but there’s always more there. The context in our time helps us see things in that long-ago time in new ways.

I went back for a closer read of the text, and was surprised to see what I had missed in the story. Here’s what it says:

“After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” (Luke 2:46)

Jesus was not holding forth to the teachers, but, rather, sitting among the teachers, asking them questions. Jesus didn’t presume to have all the answers. If he didn’t, back then, why should we, today?

“Everything I concluded about my faith,” one student in the 2020 confirmation class writes in their statement of faith, “Always had a giant question mark at the end.”

I wish we knew what middle-school age Jesus was asking in the Temple in the days he spent there.

Another confirmation student says,

“God is, quite honestly, a hard concept to grasp. The truth is that I struggle to put words to what God is to me.”

We can imagine 12-year old Jesus say those same words that day in the Temple 2,000 years ago. This is hard stuff – at any age, in any era. Sometimes I think we ask too much of our confirmation students. We don’t require the adults in our new member classes to write a statement of faith. How can we expect 15-year-olds to grasp concepts with which we even struggle sometimes, to put into words mysteries far beyond our capacity ever to comprehend fully?

It’s a bold thing these students do each year, and we should be appropriately astonished at what they write.

“When I first tried to write this,” one says of their statement of faith,

“I didn’t have the slightest clue what to make it about. But I guess when it boils down to it, to me, God loves above all else.”

That’s basically what Jesus will say when asked, many years after his time as a boy in the Temple, what the greatest commandment is: it all boils down, to me, to love. Love of God and love of neighbor, as we love ourselves.

Contrary to the image in my Children’s Bible, Jesus wasn’t standing there holding forth in front elders captivated by his brash 12-year old self. No: he was sitting there listening. And as he listened, he learned from their wisdom and experience. After a couple days of it, he probably began pushing back a bit. I sure did when I was a confirmand.

Jesus must have tried out his own way of saying things. That’s when the elders were, as Luke tells us, “amazed at his understanding.”

This is the story of Jesus in a five-day intensive Confirmation Class at the Temple. Like every kid who’s ever gone through confirmation – including this one long ago – he brought his questions.

Jesus was listening to learn.

Listening does not always come easy to us. Our attention is relentlessly diverted. Our listening muscles have atrophied in our time. We’re so distracted by the deluge of information coming at us through our technology that it takes real effort to look up and stop, and listen.

At other times we cannot listen well because our assumptions get in the expect way. We assume we know what someone is going to say – and then don’t bother listening and never hear them. That happens between parents and children. It happens with siblings. It happens between those of one ethnicity and another. It happens between men and women. It is happening across the political and cultural divides that keep us so far apart it seems as if there is little hope of ever hearing one another. How can we expect our nation to heal if we cannot listen to each another?

A thousand years before Jesus attends confirmation class at the Temple, the boy Samuel has trouble listening. He grew up in the Temple with the priest Eli, who had gotten on in years. One night, at the time when he is around the same age as the young Jesus in the Temple, Samuel is lying down when a voice calls out his name. Thinking Eli has summoned him, Samuel goes to the priest, who tells him he did not call.

Samuel returns to bed, and once more he hears, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Again, Eli says he has not called him. It happens a third time, and finally the old priest Eli realizes what’s happening: God is calling the boy, but Samuel is simply not able to listen and understand. He doesn’t hear God’s voice, because Samuel assumes God would never be speaking to him.

With Eli’s help, Samuel – whose name means, ironically, God hears – is learning to listen. Learning to listen is not merely a helpful tool on the journey of faith – it is the heart of the journey of faith. When we learn to listen, we begin to experience, and open ourselves up to, the holy.

“Speak,” Samuel says finally, “For your servant is listening.”

When Samuel learns to listen, he finds direction and purpose. He discovers God’s claim on his life, and moves beyond his own little cocooned world. Listening breaks the bubble. When we listen to one another, we can’t help but move outside our protected versions of reality. By pausing to listen, we’re invited into someone else’s worldview, and if, like Samuel, we’re able to hear it, then we may be changed by it.

The 2020 confirmation students had to learn to listen in new ways, given all that happened during their class year. Halfway through, Covid hit, schools locked down, the economy tanked, and then George Floyd was killed; protests and uprising happened in our city and in our nation and around the world. Those realities found their way into the statements of faith.

“At the root of my strongest doubts and largest questions,” one confirmation student says,

“Westminster still fosters faith and continues to move as a group together…despite the differences in beliefs and questions, because above it all, love drives this church and justice is love in public.”

Frankly, this has been a good year for all of us to wrestle with what it means to have faith, because larger questions have kept cropping up, and there seems no end to them: Why can’t we work together to manage Covid-19? How will we ever get the economy back on its feet? What will it take to dismantle racial patterns and systems? What will happen after the election? When will we finally begin to address climate change? All those questions ought to be tumbling around in the place where we hold our faith.

“Currently,” one student writes,

“With the world experiencing so much conflict, I feel more connected to God…I have faith that …God will guide things…away from the pandemic and racial injustice.”

A strong statement of faith.

Another student says,

To me, my spirituality has always been a large part of my life, but for a while it felt as though I was just going through the motions of being a Christian…This hesitation to fully let go and trust in God seemed to stem from the feeling of uncertainty that is rooted deep within these times.”

Many of us could say the same thing about our faith.

Having read Westminster confirmation student statements for two decades, I was struck by the key role the Holy Spirit plays in the faith of this year’s students. That may be instructive to us in these tumultuous times – we all should be watching and listening for the Spirt moving among us.

“The Holy Spirit is God’s presence,” one student says,

“Wrapping and connecting the entire world in an energy that one can feel wherever one goes. The Holy Spirit has the ability to guide me to the things I love, and bring me back from the things that have harmed me.”

One student sounds like the writers of the 4th century Nicene Creed, who use the Greek word homoousia, or unifying essence, to describe the one, triune God.

“I have always experienced the Holy Spirit,” the student writes, “As an ‘essence’ that brings us all together.”

So insightful. Like those elders long ago, we, too, can benefit from the wisdom of youth.

 

Learning to listen. Listening to learn. That is the work of any healthy relationship, and certainly the work of active trust in God.

As the young Jesus discovered when he stayed behind in the Temple, and as our confirmation students experienced this year, nurturing our faith, growing our faith, developing our faith, is not a solitary effort. It takes place best in community, where we can learn together, and grow together, and listen together.

“I don’t go to church,” one confirmation student writes,

“To justify telling certain people they are ‘lesser than.’ I don’t go to church to tell people that I am inherently ‘better’ by believing in one religion over another or believing in religion at all. I go to church to take part in an important community to me. I go to church to make some of my best friends. I go to church to work for justice and love my neighbors…Church is now a very important place to me. I know my faith journey will be hard and I know it is something I will continue to wrestle with, but Westminster will always be an important place to me.”

May it be so for all of us – that we would all have a community in which we could struggle to listen and grow our faith.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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