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  • Rev. Sara Ofner-Seals

Holy Listening


Philippians 2:1-13

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Have you ever had one of those weeks when a certain theme or idea seems to keep popping up? One of those weeks when everywhere you go, everything you read or see on TV, every random conversation you have, all seems to be leading you somewhere, to the point where you start to think, maybe someone up there is trying to tell me something?

Well, I had one of those experiences this past week. It all started last Sunday, when I went to a workshop on the subject of parish care. At the workshop, we did a number of exercises focused on a skill called “active listening.” If you’ve never heard of this practice before, it’s the art of listening deeply to another person, to the extent that you are not supposed to say anything in response other than to reflect exactly what it is the other person has said to you— no editorializing, no interpreting, definitely no giving advice— just let them know that you really, truly heard them. For those of you who have never done this, let me tell you, it’s a lot harder than you might think. The extent to which we project our own thoughts and opinions onto to what others say— without even realizing we’re doing it—is really quite staggering.

Anyway, that was Sunday. On Monday, I received a Facebook message from someone unexpected— someone I don’t really know very well, but we are connected on Facebook because of several mutual friends. He had seen something I had posted about a controversial issue, and rather than starting a contentious debate on my public page, he wanted to send me a private message to let me know that he respectfully disagreed with what I had posted. I can’t tell you how much I actually appreciated that, since in the past, I have been abruptly and unceremoniously unfriended for similar posts by people with whom I have much closer relationships. And so I responded first by thanking him for his comments, and then offered some clarifications on my original post. And then, unexpectedly, we began a conservation— one that ended with both of us agreeing that if only our two sides could try and listen to and understand each other better, maybe we could find some common ground.

Then came Wednesday evening, and our weekly discussion group meeting downtown. Again, the subject of listening came up. We talked about the difference between listening for the purpose of understanding, verses listening for the purpose of arguing against someone. One person pointed out that really good listening requires being open to the idea that you might actually learn something new, or that— and get ready for this because it’s a radical idea— you might actually change your mind.

So you see the theme here, right? It seemed like everywhere I went this past week, the subject of listening was coming up. And so I got to thinking about how we in the church talk an awful lot about listening— we talk about listening for the still small voice of God, we talk about listening for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we talk about prayer and meditation as being exercises in the art of listening to God. We talk a lot about listening. But how often do we actually stop to listen— not just to God— but to each other? And I mean, really listen—without adding our own thoughts and opinions, without seeking to persuade someone to our point of view, without seeking to be ‘right’? What would it look like to listen to each other with the same kind of reverence we feel is required in our attempts to listen for the still small voice of God? What would it look like to listen to one another, in the words of the apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians, “with the same mind that was in Christ?”

These are the questions that began to bubble up for me as the subject of listening came up again and again this week. And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that perhaps this week’s reading from Philippians might have some valuable insights on the matter.

So Philippians, as most of you may already know, is one of many letters in the New Testament attributed to the apostle Paul. Many scholars and theologians recognize it as containing one of the most beautifully articulated statements of faith in all of the New Testament. “Let the same mind be in you,” Paul writes, “that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

When it comes to summing up all of Christian theology into a single concise statement, this passage does a pretty good job. It’s what sets Christianity apart from so many other world religions, and certainly from most other religions of Paul’s time— this idea that the all powerful creator of the universe, would become humble and vulnerable to the point of death, just so that we tiny, petty, insignificant humans could somehow understand God better in order to be in relationship with that God. That’s pretty extraordinary, is it not?

But you know, the thing about really good theology is that it’s not just a bunch of beautifully articulated words, but rather, it’s grounded in real, lived experience with real application for our every day lives. In the case of this letter, as is the case in most of Paul’s letters, Paul is not just waxing eloquently about the finer points of Christian theology. He is actually responding to a very specific issue in the Philippian church. We find out exactly what that issue is towards the end of the letter, when Paul mentions two women by name— Euodia and Syntyche— who are apparently in the midst of a rather contentious argument. “Let them be in the same mind as the Lord,” Paul writes about them, echoing his words from earlier in the letter. What Paul is suggesting here, is that in the midst of this contentious debate, the two sides take their cue from Jesus himself, approaching one another with humility and vulnerability rather than hostility or animosity, putting the wellbeing of the other person before their own personal opinion or preference. “In humility,” Paul says, “regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.” Who knows what these two women were fighting about. Maybe it was finer points of theology, maybe it was a timely social justice issue, or maybe it was the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. The point is, the animosity between them had gotten to the point that it was getting in the way of the well-being of the whole community, and it was not doing either of them, or anyone else, any good.

So… I don’t know… do you suppose we could relate to this situation at all? Are there any contentious arguments happening in our culture right now?

Just a few, right? And when you think about how these arguments are playing out, does it seem like any of the major players are taking Paul’s advice? No, of course not! Because this is an extremely counter-cultural idea. It was counter-cultural in the first century, and it remains deeply counter-cultural to this day. It’s counter-cultural, because usually, when we enter into a conversation on a contentious subject, what is it we so often try to do? We try to win the argument! We try to convince the other side that we are right. At the very least, we try our best to make our viewpoint understood, because we want the other side to know that our belief is valid. While this is perfectly understandable, it's not what Paul is suggesting we do here. He talks about being in the same mind as Christ, who completely emptied himself to the point of death. If it was a matter of winning arguments, one could make the case that when it came to the arguments Jesus was having with the Jewish and Roman authorities, he lost the argument— big time. He ended up on a cross, after all. Ultimately, of course, we know that the cross isn’t actually the end of the story. We know that in the end, love did win out. The point here, however, is that we only get to that happy conclusion after a solid dose of humility and vulnerability. We can’t argue our way there. But maybe, just maybe, with a little bit of vulnerability and a lot of humility, we can listen our way there.

So, what does it look like to do this? What does it look like to listen to someone else in this way—to empty ourselves of our own agendas in order to listen to someone else so deeply that all the superficial divisions fall away, and all that remains are two human souls created in the image of a good and loving God?

I had an idea this week about one way to illustrate what that would look like. So I thought we might try a little experiment. I have collected a number of quotes—all from real people, talking about real life events— and I have removed from them any indicators of their specific situation or their specific political inclination. I’m going to read those quotes now, and I’m going to request that you not try and figure out what specific situation any individual quotes might be referring to, or try to identity what might be a conservative quote or a liberal quote. Just listen to what is behind the words. Try and empathize with what the person might have been feeling when he or she said them. Close your eyes if you want. Empty yourself of any assumptions or preconceived notions. And just listen…

I feel like a stranger in my own country.

There are bodies in the streets.

It felt as if the world was subsumed by cascades of unceasing despair.

We don’t know how we are going to survive, it feels impossible, we are dying.

I do not know where I am going, where I have come from is disappearing.

Who has inflicted this upon us? Who has allowed us to suffer so terribly?

This could have happened to any of my family members.

I felt furious, hurt and hopeless.

It’s like I don’t have the right to my own feelings.

I felt like my opportunities were being taken away from me.

They took one look at me, and decided my fate.

I can’t think about it too much, because when I do I am filled with despair.

The system is broken.

I can’t remember ever feeling so powerless.

So, what did you hear? I’ll tell you what I heard. I heard people who are in pain. People for whom the world feels threatening and the future is frightening and uncertain. In these words, I hear people who are on the edge of despair, who are extremely vulnerable, and who are in need of some good news. How many of us can’t relate to that?

It turns out, or at least I suspect that it does, that when we filter out all the political noise, when we are humble enough to listen to someone else for a change— not for own sake, but for theirs— what we hear is that at the end of the day, every single one of us is just trying to find our footing in this world.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that every opinion is equally acceptable or desirable. There are opinions out there that are based in fear and hate. There are opinions based on ignorance and misinformation, and there are opinions that are not compatible with Christ’s teaching to love others as we love ourselves. What those opinions are, however, is a whole other subject that we can’t even begin to explore this morning. That’s a conversation for another day. What I am trying to get at today is that nothing is going to change— not in our relationships with one another, nor in the current state of affairs in our world— if we don’t at least try to meet each other where we are at and understand where the other side is coming from. Not so that we can ultimately win the argument, but so that we can love one another better. Because here’s the bottom line— love has already won the ultimate argument. God has seen to that, and God will continue to see to that. That part’s not really up to us. Our part in this whole crazy plan is to love one another as Christ loved us. And sometimes, that is really really hard. But maybe, just maybe, it could get a little easier if we listened to each other with a little more humility and a whole lot more love. God in your mercy, may it ever be so.


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