Imagine you are taking your regular walk with your friends, close friends whom you know and trust, and as you’re walking along, one of them tells the group that they are about to be arrested and executed, and then come back from the dead. What would happen to your conversation for the rest of the walk?
Jesus’ disciples were really bad listeners. They didn’t understand, for which we can hardly blame them, but then, instead of asking questions, they basically said to one another, “Yeah, whatever, so anyway, which one of us is really his BFF?”
Poor Jesus, imagine knowing what lies ahead, and sharing your stress and fear with your closest friends, hoping for some love, or support, or at least curiosity, only to hear the Aramaic equivalent of, “Sure, Jesus, whatever you say, anyway, Peter, you can’t be his BFF, he called you Satan yesterday” But Jesus didn’t get angry, instead of making a fuss about how he was being ignored, he met his friends where they were, and talked about what they wanted to talk about.
That’s what listening is all about. Listening is rare skill. Can you remember the last time you really felt listened to? Or the last time you really listened? Listening is really hard. It takes time, when we’re so often in a rush. It takes attention, when we’re usually so distracted with what’s going on in our own lives. Most difficult of all, listening takes humility, a willingness to just listen, nothing else – not deciding whether I agree or not and formulating my response, not remembering that time something similar happened to me, “Execution? Let me tell you about execution, back when I was executed they made sure the crosses had extra splinters….” Listening is immersing yourself in the experience and feelings of the other, asking questions, double-checking assumptions, truly trying simply to understand another person. And then, only when you understand what they want you to hear, thinking about your response.
When is the last time someone listened to you like that?
Husbands, wives, and partners, that’s the most important skill you can learn.
Sometimes listening is easier than others. With an attractive and fascinating person it’s easy. Do you remember gazing into someone’s face and thinking, I could listen to them all day? Or a new teacher, or professor, whose thought or lecture style really captured your attention.
But then there’s that friend or lover you’ve known for years. You start to make assumptions about what they are saying, you fill in the blanks as you mind wanders, because you know what they’ll say, and much of the time you’re probably right, but not always. Or there’s that person at the party who catches you in the corner, and goes on an on about God knows what, while that attractive and fascinating person is on the other side of the room. Or that loon who’s so caught up in crazy conspiracy theories that you blood starts to boil the moment they open their mouth. Or worst of all, that person against the wall whom you never even notice, who desperately needs someone jut to hear them, and acknowledge that they are real.
“Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’ ”
Sometime around the 50s the world changed, and children became the center of our lives. That was not always the case. In Jesus’ time, in the first century Roman empire, children were nonentities. They were not to be seen or heard. They were practically disposable. About 25% died in the first year. About half died before reaching age ten. They were property, and a father had the legal right to disown children who angered him, or to sell them into slavery, or even to kill them, especially in cases where the child was born deformed, or when the family could not afford another1. Children today are central to everything, and this is really hard for us to wrap our heads around, but in the first century they were not even people.
Capernaum was Jesus’ home, and we don’t know if they had gathered in Jesus’ house, or most likely in Peter’s. This might have been Peter’s child, or maybe more likely the child of a slave. Mark didn’t find it important enough to tell us, and it didn’t matter, it wasn’t really human. But there it was, in Jesus’ arms, as he told his disciples, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all, and listen even to those who are unseen, unnoticed, unvalued, less than human,” who might be disowned, sold, or killed, and no one would notice. “Whoever welcomes the dispossessed in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
We all know this sign, and we take some justifiable pride in welcoming every image of God. Now, I haven’t been here long enough to know from experience, but a few people have mentioned to me that we might do better at making our welcome richer and deeper than just open doors, and we can work on building our listening skills, but open doors and open arms are a huge start.
We have another problem, though. You see, among those who have even heard of us, the Episcopal Church has a certain reputation, one we have probably earned. In the popular view, we are wealthy, privileged, educated, artistic, influential, and maybe just a little stuck on ourselves. And who can blame us, we are fascinating and attractive people, and like calls to like, and so those who come to see what we’re all about are also fascinating and attractive people.
But maybe, instead of talking about how great we are for welcoming everybody, we should be asking who isn’t here? To whom should we be listening, as they tell us about betrayal, suffering, or resurrection? Whom have we disowned? Whom have we sold? Who has simply gone unnoticed and unheard as we talk among ourselves?
Can you picture the face of the last man you saw sleeping on the street? Do you remember the name of the last person who rang up your groceries? What are the names of the folks who take care of your lawn and landscape? No matter how wide our doors, we can’t welcome them because they won’t be coming here. But welcome is only the beginning, and it isn’t enough to just sit and wait.
God finds those we fail to see absolutely fascinating and irresistibly attractive. We can wait and welcome, or we can go where God is, gazing into his beloveds’ eyes and hanging on their every word. And we can listen too.
“Draw near to God,” writes James, “and God will draw near to you.”
1“The Roman Empire: In the First Century. The Roman Empire. Life In Roman Times. Family Life | PBS.” Accessed September 18, 2021. http://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/family.html.