The Year of Listening

September 13, 2020
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Proverbs 8:12, 22-35a

“I, wisdom,” says the voice of the writer of Proverbs, “Live with prudence, and I attain knowledge and discretion. The Lord created me at the beginning of God’s work, the first of God’s acts of long ago. Ages ago I, wisdom, was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.” (Proverbs 8:12, 22-23)

Exactly six months ago, on March 13, the elders of Westminster met in an emergency session. After careful deliberation, they solemnly suspended Westminster’s on-site worship – for the next two Sundays. It seemed the wise thing to do.

Suspending the gathering of the congregation for worship had never happened in the 163-year history of this church. Even during wars, other pandemics, national emergencies, and raging storms – or maybe especially during those times of crisis – Westminster had always assembled in-person to worship God on the Lord’s Day.

I remember one Sunday morning many years ago in the midst of a wild blizzard, with more than two feet of freshly-fallen snow on the ground, when the staff members who could make it in for the 8:30 service that day decided to cancel it. To our surprise a handful of hardy souls managed to get to church, and insisted we go ahead.

The decision on March 13 was not taken lightly. The goal, of course, was to reduce the possibility of spreading the coronavirus. Those initial Sundays of canceled in-person worship – done in the innocent hope that we’d miss only two weeks in the sanctuary – soon stretched into months…and, now, half a year. And I’m afraid we have many, many more months to go.

The authorities have essentially left to each house of worship the need to develop protocols for the safety of their congregants and the community. We have done that and the plan is available now on the Westminster website.

We should re-state the obvious: we never canceled worship itself – merely worshipping in-person. We are still the church, and our primary purpose is to worship God and to share God’s love and justice. That has continued unabated, every week through these months.

“When there were no depths,” the writer of Proverbs says, “I, wisdom, was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I, wisdom, was brought forth– when God had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil.” (Proverbs 8:24-26)

Westminster readily adjusted to the technology needed in this season of separation. We were already live-streaming – we simply added online classes and Zoom meetings and a YouTube account to our tech repertoire. We were early adapters, believe it or not.

The challenge for us has come not so much in the technology, but in the theology. How do we understand and speak of God in this time? How do we discern a faith-filled response to Covid? As the old hymn asserts: New occasions teach new duties. What are they?

Deaths from Covid in America will soon pass 200,000 this week. They will likely pass a quarter million by the November election. Nearly seven million have been infected; every day: 35,000 new infections, 1000 more deaths. Covid has become the third leading cause of death in the US, after heart disease and cancer – neither of which is contagious. (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html)

We have lost to Covid one-third more people in eight months than US troops lost in WWI, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, combined. We will likely surpass the total deaths of US troops in WWII by the end of 2020, ten months into Covid. (https://www.va.gov/opa/publications/factsheets/fs_americas_wars.pdf)

This is a serious crisis. It’s hard to grasp the numbers, and even easier to forget that each one represents a person with a name and a story, and heartbroken loved-ones.

Remember how we used to talk about 9/11 as the defining event for our age? That was then. Now, we lose as many Americans to Covid every three days as died in the attacks on September 11. What we are facing with this pandemic – what the world is facing – will define our life for years to come. We’re raising a Covid-generation of students. Our economy will, by some estimates, take six to eight years to recover fully. Closer to home, downtown Minneapolis is facing enormous challenges due to Covid closures.

Without a national, coordinated containment strategy – which ought to be a moral commitment expressed in political will and decisions – we can expect from Covid continued death and ongoing destruction to individuals and families and communities and our nation and the world on a devastating scale until an effective vaccine is widely available and used.

On Coming Together Sunday, when Westminster traditionally enjoys uplifting worship that launches us into a new program year, this may not be what we want to hear from the pulpit. It certainly is not what I want to preach. But the pandemic poses questions of historic proportions that we cannot ignore.

Who are we called to be as the people of God in the midst of a pandemic wreaking havoc on our life together as a nation? What does our faith compel us to do as the virus continues to sow death and illness across the land? What are the theological implications of a pandemic?

“When God established the heavens,” the writer of Proverbs says, “I, wisdom, was there, when God drew a circle on the face of the deep, when God made firm the skies above, when God assigned to the sea its limit…when God marked out the foundations of the earth, then I, wisdom, was beside the Lord, like a master worker.” (Proverbs 8:27-30a)

One of the books I read this summer, by Adam Nicolson, tells the story of the writing of the King James Bible. Called God’s Secretaries, the book takes the reader into the first decade of the 17th century in England. King James had come from Scotland to ascend to the throne. Early in his reign he summoned a team of scholars and church leaders to create a new, unifying translation of the Bible.

The seven-year project was prompted, at least to some degree, by the popularity of the Geneva Bible, a translation by Calvinist Protestants in Switzerland. James and his English bishops wanted to undercut the growing influence of Presbyterians – the king had had enough of them in Edinburgh – and wanted to shore up the nascent Anglican, proto-Catholic English church.

The start of the work on the King James Bible in London coincided with the arrival in England of the Bubonic Plague, the first true global pandemic. As the dozens of scholars and church officials began their labor, the Black Death began its work. It concentrated on those who were most vulnerable.

“Disease,” author Nicolson writes, “Exposes the assumptions of a society…Plague simply exaggerated the savage social distinctions of everyday life.” (London: HarperCollins, 2003; p. 22, 25)

That was in early 17th century England. It sounds familiar.

Aside from a few heroic bishops, most powerful church leaders back then joined the royalty in fleeing the city for the fresh air of the countryside, because they could. The same was true of others who had any wealth at all – traders, merchants, academics, courtiers – they all left London, blaming the “immorality of the poor” for their succumbing to disease. When the poor tried to leave, they were escorted back into the slums to die.

In the midst of that wretchedness and that cruelty on the part of the Church and the Crown, the King James Bible – sometimes described as the most beautiful work in the English language – took shape, oblivious to the misery all around. The Church should have known better; if only it had read the very pages of Scripture it was translating.

“I, wisdom,” the writer of Proverbs says, “Was daily the Lord’s delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” (Proverbs 8:30b-31)

The questions facing the church in the pandemic of that time are not much different in the time of Covid. Now, as then, those most likely to die are poor and living in cramped, crowded conditions; those working in slaughterhouses and nursing homes and the hallways of hospitals and the checkout lanes of stores; those who are Black or Latino or Indigenous: their rate of death is triple that of white Americans.

In 17th century London the Plague laid bare the ugliest realities of that time; Covid is doing the same in ours. We know all this about ourselves, at least we should, but we quickly forget that which does not directly affect us. It’s as if we have an unwritten Covid-contract much like the unspoken yet very real racial contract, where those in power agree to look past the suffering of some to maintain the privilege of others.

An unarmed Black man is accused of using a counterfeit 20-dollar bill and ends up killed by police, while an armed white teenager, having just killed two people, is ignored by police. The racial contract. Hispanic meatpacking workers are ordered back to work in unsafe conditions, while 85% of the office workers in downtown Minneapolis continue to work at home, perhaps even in the countryside for the fresh air. The Covid contract.

Maybe the most pressing theological question facing us as a community of faith in our time arises from the misery of people on the receiving end of injustice and inequity, newly exposed, laid bare by Covid. God speaks through their suffering. Are we listening?

Until we listen, until we truly listen to the voices of those silenced now and through the ages, we will not grasp the full picture; we will not learn the more complete story; we will not attain the wisdom needed to create authentic, just human community. The writer of Proverbs reminds us that before all time Wisdom was there, with God; Wisdom helped assemble the creation; Wisdom helped God design all that is; Wisdom joined the Creator in delighting in the human race.

And as Wisdom rejoiced in the beauty and wonder of Creation, she had a warning for us:

“And now, my children, listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways. Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it. Happy is the one who listens to me…For whoever finds me” – whoever finds wisdom, whoever listens to wisdom – “finds life.” (Proverbs 8:32-35)

Listen to me, for I speak through the voice of human community. Listen to me, for I sound in the suffering of children. Listen to me, for I may be heard in the cries of those who don’t count for much in the way the world reckons. Listen to me, as you yourself would want to be listened to.

This will be The Year of Listening at Westminster. That doesn’t mean we will be passive and not active; it means we will begin with listening as we engage in the pursuit of justice. We will begin with listening as we come to God in prayer. We will begin with listening in our personal relationships.

The Year of Listening. The impulse for this theme arises out of this cultural moment. Listening is the basic building block of human relationships, of human community. If our world feels as if it’s flying apart, it could be because we have stopped listening to one another.

Listening is the fundamental religious act. The gospel is predicated on the act of listening. Good News is meant to be heard, which means we must quiet our own voices to make room for another beyond us. Only then can we begin to hear the living Word that is within each person.

We cannot learn without listening. We cannot love without listening.

And we cannot work together to end this pandemic without resolving to listen – to medical science, to those who know more than we do about the virus and how to limit its spread, to those most affected by the disease.

We need the wisdom that has been there all along, the wisdom that comes from listening.

Our charge as a Christian congregation on this Coming Together Sunday, at the six-month point of being apart from one another, is to go forth and listen, especially to those whose voices we have not heard before.

In so doing, we begin the healing work wherein lies our best hope for the future.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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