Jesus, the Active Listener


Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (5:1-11)

Joke! A 16 year old boy comes home excited and tells his father, “I got a part in the school play!”  His dad replied, “Great, son!  What part are you playing?”  “I’m playing a man who has been married for twenty years.”  “Excellent!” his dad said, “maybe next time you’ll get a speaking role!”  There is a point to this. You will see!

Notice how attentive Jesus is to the needs of Peter and the other fishermen in today’s Gospel reading.  He is totally engaged with them as he is with everyone he meets.  He is completely mindful of them, their lives, their interests, their joys and sufferings.  When he is with fishermen, he talks about fishing. When he is with farmers, he talks about seeds and soil and weeds.  Jesus is always present with the people he meets as if there was no one else in the world.

I heard a wonderful compliment delivered to a friend of mine by a funeral director.  “When I am with you, I feel like no one else exists but you and me.”  If reminds me of CS Lewis’ remark that God has an eternity to spend with every person…alone.  Mindfulness is a divine attribute and one we can nurture in ourselves.  The more we do, the more like God we will become.

Notice, Jesus usually begins to minister first by listening carefully, deeply and attentively.  Even when he is asked a question he responds with another, gently probing, softly inviting whoever it is who comes to him to open up and reveal herself.  He doesn’t impose.  He listens.  He may know all things as God, and yet he waits patiently as each person reveals as much of himself as he is willing to reveal.

Perhaps this is part of what St. Paul meant by saying God will not give us more than we can handle. We usually think about that in terms of trials and tribulations, but I think it also means grace. The Rich Young Man was not able to receive all that Christ wanted to give him and he walked away sad.  Although we do not know for certain, I believe more chances would come.  The Samaritan Woman at the Well was able to receive even more of God grace.  He revealed to her the mysteries of the kingdom even though she was a great sinner. 

Compassion takes the shape of the container into which it is poured, like water takes the shape of a glass.  The size of the glass determines how much water it can hold.  The heart is expandable.  It is capable of limitless growth. But to grow it must break.  How many times did the Samaritan Woman’s heart break?  How many husbands had she had?  Her heart must have been expansive because she had suffered so much for into it the Lord poured an overabundance of grace.

Curiosity, openness, and acceptance exemplify his approach. Today we call it “active listening.”   It is taught in psychology and schools of social work. Thankfully, it is taught in some seminaries as well. It is an essential element of the art of meditation and prayer and nearly every other spiritual practice I know. To be a good therapist, social worker, pastor, friend, spouse or parent, active listening is essential.  We must learn how to listen. To get ourselves out of the way and really hear what the other is saying. To empty ourselves so there is room for the other. Love depends on it.

A famous quote from Thomas Merton says it this way:  The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.  To love only our own reflection in the other is selfishness, not love.  We must empty ourselves of ourselves in order to love.

Jesus waits with exquisite patience to allow us to reveal ourselves to him. He who knows all things comes to us humbly and asks, “Do you want to be healed?”  Then he waits for our response.  He does not force or coerce us nor trample upon our sensitivities or our freedom. There is a Sufi saying about this, “It is a sin to wake a sleeper too soon.”   God who never sleeps waits for our eyes to open and when they do, he is there to greet us.

God knows both how much we can bear at any given time and how much the heart is capable of bearing when it expands to its greatest size.  The truth is there is no limit to how big the heart can grow. Almost as big, if I may say so, as God’s own limitless heart!  We must be patient and always grateful, for everything that comes in life comes to empty us, stretch, mold and expand us so that we can love more purely and deeply.

I love this verse from the Psalms, “They that wait upon the Lord, shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”  If we believe in him and love him, we will be all right with waiting. We will give thanks as we wait knowing that everything that happens is the perfect thing to bring us one step closer to him.

Here is the point of the little joke I told at the beginning.  God has given us a speaking role from the beginning and never takes it away and as we come closer and closer to him, more and more molded into his likeness, we find we do not to speak as much.  Twenty years, or thirty or more married to God and there is no need to speak anymore.  Intimate communication is practically telepathic, it needs no words.

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom tells the story of a French priest who would often find an old man sitting quietly in the church, sometimes for hours. He just sat. He said and did nothing more than sit.  One day the priest went up to him and asked, “Excuse me. You are always welcome in church, of course, but I just wanted to know what you do when you are here.”  The old man answered, “I look at him and he looks at me.”

One day, after all is said and done, after the heart is expanded and grace has been applied, silence will prove to be more than enough.

Let me leave you with a little prayer to meet every moment. I learned it from a lovely Buddhist teacher, Sylvia Boorstein, but it is very easy to convert it to a Christian prayer:

Lord, may I meet each moment fully.
Lord, may I meet each moment as a friend.

It helps!