Can We Listen?

Jonathan Mitchell

Portland New Church

Portland, Maine

January 11, 1997

Tao Te Ching, Poems 11, 25

Job 12:7-8

Luke 2:41-52

"They found Jesus sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking questions." And after Jesus returned home with Mary and Joseph, we read that he "grew in wisdom and stature and favor."

This story is the only story of Jesus' childhood found in the canonical gospels. It has been a classic text for those through the centuries who have wanted to emphasize Jesus' full humanity. Jesus had to learn, to grow, to develop. Just like any one of us, he not only was, he became.

This story is also one of the few that emphasize Jesus as listener. Jesus is more frequently portrayed as one who spoke powerfully. Very much in the prophetic tradition, he challenged the social and religious institutions of his time. He puzzled and challenged even his own closest disciples.

But today I will take as my starting point the fact that Jesus also listened. It is my guess that he was a very powerful listener. As I talk about listening I will focus upon two of its requirements, silence and strength. To listen we need proffer silence to the one who speaks, and we need to be strong.

Silence—at the crudest level, listening requires that we keep our mouths shut, at least temporarily. But the silence we need as listeners is not the absence of sound, the mere suppression of speech. If we listen wordlessly, expressionlessly gazing into space, our companion will wonder if we are listening at all, will wonder if we care. It is a repsonsive silence that is needed, including also at times words. The silence we need is richer, more subtle, more inviting than mere blankness.

We find a teacher for the silence we need by walking, for instance, into the woods. In the woods the creaking of a branch, the rustle of the wind through the trees, the call of a bird, the distant hum of traffic break the silence. Or at least at one level, but at another level all these intensify the stillness. For me and perhaps for you, this silence inspires a deeper listening. At times it has seemed to me the very silence of the woods spoke to me. It has even seemed to me at times that there were words within that silence that I couldn't quite make out. At times, especially at times of great emotional need, I have also felt listened to—listened to as the raw nerves started to be soothed. Listening—to the woods, to the Spirit, to myself? Listened to— by myself, by the woods, by the Spirit? It can be hard to make those distinctions and perhaps we don't have to. Such silence is rich, subtle and welcoming.

It is also the silence we can learn to offer each other. There is a story that illustrates one of the important properties of this silence. It is the story from which Heinrich Zimmer's The King and the Corpse takes its title. A king, through a series of events we won't describe here, found himself in the debt of an ascetic. And to clear the debt he had to do him a favor. He was to bring the ascetic at night a corpse from the burning ground—with the condition that he not say anything in the process. Well, as the king was carrying the corpse, a vulture alighted on the corpse's shoulder and proceeded to tell the king a story. At the end of the story the vulture asked the king a question with the admonition, "If you think you know the answer and say nothing, your head will explode into a thousand pieces." Feeling he knew the answer, the king was constrained to speak. Immediately the corpse flew back to the burning ground and the king had to start over.

This is one of those frame stories that so characterize the Indian story-telling tradition. Over the course of the night the vulture told twenty-five stories and asked twenty-five questions. All of the stories through complicated sets of circumstances made it hard to know at the end who was married to whom, for instance, who was the rightful heir of a kingdom, or who was the rightful owner of some object. But for the first twenty-four times the king felt he could resolve the puzzle. Only on the twenty-fifth go-round was the king able to dwell in the silence of not knowing.

The silence of the king is also the silence of deep listening—for a deep listening to ourselves, to the Spirit, to each other. Listening is cut short when we are too quick to decide what's what, when we reflexively distinguish true and false, good and bad, right and wrong. This is true whether you speak or keep your opinions to yourself—though if you keep strong opinions to yourself you risk having head explode into a thousand pieces! The trick is to be slow to form opinions.

To be sure, there is time for speaking. But I would urge that there is also value in allowing ourselves a stretch of time in which we don't know the answers. Or more profoundly, a time when we are not even sure what the right questions are. For it is then that we are open to hearing something we have never heard before, something we have never been able to conceive before.

Consider what is involved in the creative process. Anyone who has ever written a poem, composed a song, designed a garden, improvised a recipe knows the place where your creation is hovering just outside your grasp. In the case of a poem or a song, it is as though you can almost but not quite hear the words or the melody. I invite you consider the forms your own creativity takes. In the end it takes a concrete form, a specific arrangement of words, or of notes, a specific blend of ingredients, a specific arrangement of parts. But very often the power and originality of the result depends on how long you can hold off from the final decisions. The process is very much one that can be metaphorically described as waiting in silence.

And that is the kind of silence we can bring to each other. We can remind ourselves that we have yet to find out who our companions are—no matter how intimate they seem to have become. And more profoundly, we have yet to find out who are companions can be. The presumption of knowing it all already can cut off true hearing.

And it is here that listening requires strength. Deep listening, with its openness to what is new to us, may ask us to change. Consider the story of Jesus and the Syro-Phoenecian woman. As Mark tells the story a gentile woman came to Jesus and asked him to heal her daughter. Jesus refused, saying "it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs." Jesus, apparently, is only open to working with his fellow "children of Israel." The woman replies, "But even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Jesus says, "For such a reply you many go; the demon has left your daughter."

Since we are talking about silence, let's take a moment to appreciate the silences that surround this story. We are not told in what spirit, nor with what tone of voice these comments were made. It is common in the Christian tradition to take Jesus' comments as a test, and to hear humility in the woman's reply. But there is another way this can be heard. Jesus's comment taken by itself certainly comes across as brutally prejudiced. He calls the woman a dog. What if that were at thatmoment his true attitude. It is possible to hear the woman's reply as sarcasm—a stinging rebuke that Jesus deserved. It is here that Jesus shows himself to be a listener, someone open to learning. He might have ignored the woman; he might have dug in and defended his excluding attitude. Instead, however, he changes, in the process embracing a broadened mission. That moment of listening in silence might have been brief but it was powerful. On this reading of the story Jesus modelled the strength that is required to hear a criticism. He had the strength to accept a challenge to change. And that hearing gave strength as well—out of it the woman's daughter came to be healed. Listening, we may say, requires strength but also gives strength—healing strength.

We live in a world in which, as in the Eastern Roman Empire, many different cultures and traditions come into contact—or perhaps we should say collision. It is a world of proliferating subcultures. It is a world in which many—rightfully—are claiming their voices, their right to speak their own truth. But the other side of that coin is that we live in a world in which deep listening is desperately needed. Can we imagine or desire a world in which everyone speaks at once? How can the need to speak ever be assuaged if there is no one to hear? This I believe is our call as people living at this moment of history: Can we listen?

Afterwords 2008

I recently came across this sermon from over a decade ago in the course of doing some file purging. I was struck to see the early appearence of themes that have persisted in my preaching over the years: silence, listening and unknowing, prominent among them. The call for listening seems all the more poignant—or should I say urgent—today. At the time I wrote this the "identity politics" of the nineties were uppermost in my mind. Today I would stress the need for listening across the world's religions and cultures.

The alternate interpretation of the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman was one that I first heard in a sermon preached at the Curch of the Covenant in Boston years ago. I won't say that I think it is more correct than other possible interpretations, but it still has great appeal for me as one reading with a lesson to teach us.