In the days leading up to Pentecost, 2021, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are exploring our connection with the ideas about and process involved with reconciliation. How do we know who we are? How do we hear each other? How will we act in this world? Our texts for May 9 included the story of Peter’s vision and encounter with Cornelius in Acts 10 as well as II Corinthians 3:7-11.
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Words. I love words. I use them every day. What would we do without them? I like long words, like “somnambulist”, which is a person who is a sleepwalker. I like descriptive words, like “nifty”. And I like learning new words. The thing is, that sometimes I hear you talking, and I’m not entirely sure what you said, so I just fit it into some words that I already know.
There was a time when we had a youth group trip to Camp Crestfield. Most of the kids were having a great time, but there was one student who was just miserable. I mean, all day, every day, she bellyached and moaned about the camp rules, about the work we were doing, and about the unfairness of life in general. And then, on Wednesday, it was like a light went on. She was cheerful, she was cooperative, she was light-hearted. I couldn’t leave well-enough alone – I had to poke the bear and ask her about it. She said, “Well, I thought that this place was pretty lame, but then at breakfast that lady said that we’d be riding motorcycles after dinner. That’s awesome!”
I thought back, and I couldn’t remember any announcement about motorcycles. The student said, “You were there! She said it – that since it was Wednesday, we’d have Vespas after dinner. I don’t want to miss that!”
“Oh, friend,” I said. Not “Vespas”. “Vespers”. I explained that “vespers” is a word for a short worship service, often held in the evening. She exploded! “You’ve gotta be kidding me! Church! The ‘special bonus’ is more CHURCH around here? Geez, I hate this place…”
Yes, words – and listening – matter. How many times do we think that we’re listening, and that we’re even hearing – only to discover that we’ve missed the mark entirely.
Acts 10 contains a very lengthy narrative, of which we’ve read a portion, describing the day that God tried to teach the Apostle Peter some new words and new ideas. It was, evidently, too much, too big, too new for the old fisherman to comprehend. Peter sees the vision containing all of the “forbidden fruit” and before the Lord can say too much, he plugs his ears and shouts, “No! I can’t do that! I’ll never let you down again, Lord!”
This happens three times – the Lord starts to speak, and Peter says, “No! I can’t!” He hears the words, but he can’t listen.
After that, Peter reflects on the experience. We’re told that he was “greatly puzzled” and “still thinking” about this vision when the out-of-towners show up. And these guys are not merely insiders from another part of the country – they are Gentiles, representatives of a Roman Centurion who happens to be commanding a significant portion of the occupational forces present in Israel.
While Peter couldn’t quite bring himself to pay attention to or understand what God is doing in the moment, he finds that he is able to listen to these visitors and then, even more surprisingly, he follows them to the home of the Centurion and breaks with his own custom by entering the home and, perhaps more surprisingly, by pausing to listen.
I’ve been reading this week about a phenomenon that psychologists call “closeness communication bias”. There are several fascinating studies that demonstrate that, as a rule, the more closely we feel connected to someone, the less likely we are to actually listen to them attentively over time. Once you know someone well enough to feel “close” to them, we think that we already know what they’re going to say… and so we don’t listen as attentively. Parenthetically, I will suggest that perhaps Mothers’ Day is a fine time for us to consider whether the closeness communication bias has affected the relationships in our own homes… At any rate, Peter felt very close to God, and had a hard time actually hearing what the Lord was saying. Maybe he thought he knew what was coming. On the other hand, a message from the Roman Army? What could that possibly be about? I’d better listen up.
Luci Shaw, one of my all-time favorite poets, has a brief verse that gets to this truth. It’s called “Explorer”, and it goes like this:
You think you know my map
You’ve pioneered my wild
prairies, charted all my rivers
bodies of water,
travelled my highways and
Yet now, when I decide
to dam an old creek or
cultivate an acre or
grow a small forest
do you feel, maybe,
lost a little?
I’m suggesting that maybe Peter, like the rest of us from time to time, thought that he had God all figured out, and couldn’t quite wrap his head around the notion that God wasn’t everything that Peter thought that God was.
As it turns out, Cornelius has had an eventful day as well. He, too, has had visions and questions, and is far less sure of himself than he had been at the start of the week. By the end of our reading, Peter, Cornelius, and everyone else have been shaken free of some of their prevailing assumptions and are standing ready to listen to a new word from the Lord.
And perhaps we who, like Peter, have sought to be faithful and obedient and honest and true for a long time – perhaps we wonder, “is a ‘new’ word from the Lord even possible?” I mean, for so long we’ve held to what we were taught: that God is immutable, unchangeable; that God is the ‘unmoved mover’ who is ‘the ground of all being’. How can God change God’s mind? Is it possible for God to do something new?
Well, Peter’s contemporary and sometimes friend the Apostle Paul sure seemed to think so. In the reading we’ve had from II Corinthians, Paul remembers the fact that for generations, we carried God’s words around carved in stone – we were loath to hear them or experience them in any different way. And then Jesus showed up, and lived and spoke the Word in ways that blew some of our old understandings out of the water. The Word enfleshed sure sounded different than those words that were chiseled on a stone. Perhaps as Paul wondered how thatcould be possible, he cast his eyes on the old scroll of Isaiah 43, which read,
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:18-19)
We’ve committed to spending some time as a congregation thinking about what it means for us to be witness to and even agents of reconciliation in a world that is too often characterized by conflict, change, divisiveness, and pain. Perhaps now, more than ever, we need to join these predecessors in the faith and grow in our ability to be good listeners.
In particular, it seems to me that if we are going to be able to point toward the peace, the wholeness, and indeed the reconciliation that is offered in Christ, that we must begin (as mentioned last week) in confession and humility. The logical next step would be to join Peter and Cornelius and Paul and invest some time in training ourselves to be good and competent listeners. How tragic would it be if we were to miss out on something big that God is doing merely because we think we’ve got everything figured out just fine, thank you very much.
Dr. Wade Davis is a Canadian professor of anthropology who has the coolest job title I’ve heard in a long time: he is an official “Explorer in Residence” for the National Geographic Society. He’s traveled the world seeking to learn from indigenous cultures, particularly their use of plants for medicinal and spiritual purposes. He has written a sentence that we would all do well to memorize: “The world in which you were born is merely one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.” A significant part of learning what it means to be a child of God is realizing that not all of God’s children have the same view of the world – or of God.
Years ago our congregation was blessed by the arrival of a young family. They were new in town, and their kids went to the school up the street, and they thought that maybe we should talk about baptism, and membership, and, you know, “Jesus-y stuff”. Oh, that was music to my ears. I mean, I dove in – head first! We talked about how Jesus is present in scripture, and our conversations afforded me a platform in which to talk about how I follow Jesus in my daily life. That, in turn, led me to offer what I perceived as some incredibly thoughtful and helpful advice when this couple started making life choices that were different than mine – they were raising their children differently than I was; they spent their money, to my mind, foolishly; they were clearly “wrong” on some social issues. When I challenged these decisions (in a way that, as I reflect on it, was less than charitable), one of them said, “You don’t get it, do you Dave? It’s not like we’re trying to figure out what we want. We know what we want. And that’s where we’re heading. Can’t you see? I don’t want to be you, Dave. If that means we can’t be friends, then I’m sorry…”
Yeah. The truth hurts. Not everyone wants to be me. Or you. And that’s ok.
David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates were for many years associated with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a personality assessment tool that helps foster self-understanding. They write,
If I do not want what you want, please try not to tell me that my want is wrong.
Or if I believe other than you, at least pause before you correct my view.
Or if my emotion is less than yours, or more, given the same circumstances, try not to ask me to feel more strongly or weakly.
Or yet if I act, or fail to act, in the manner of your design for action, let me be. I do not, for the moment at least, ask you to understand me. That will come only when you are willing to give up changing me into a copy of you.
Last week, we sat with Jesus in the dirt as he waited for the religious leaders to realize that they, like the woman that they sought to shame and isolate, had failed to live into God’s best for them. Today, we watch Peter and Cornelius look at each other with new eyes, and listen to each other, perhaps for the first time – a listening that helps them to hear the Lord that they both claim to worship a whole lot more clearly.
I’d like to close with the story of a man of whom you might never have heard, but from whom we can all learn a great deal.
Isidore was born to a poor family in rural Spain in approximately 1070. He spent essentially his entire life as a hired hand on a farm in the city of Seville. He and his wife were known as models of piety and generosity. There was a time when he was disciplined for being late to work on the farm because he spent so much time in the chapel praying for his neighbors. The next time he was late because of his prayers, he arrived on the farm only to discover that there was an angel doing his plowing for him. Isidore and his wife kept a pot of soup simmering at all times so that he would be able to bring home guests at any hour and offer them hospitality.
In March of 1622 – nearly five hundred years after his death – the Church in Rome surprised the world by declaring that Isidore the Farmer was a saint. He was not of noble birth; he lived in poverty and was most likely an illiterate peasant. Yet for five hundred years, people remembered that he listened to them, and that he was kind. Nobody remembers any sermons that Isidore preached, or any proclamations that he made. They remembered that he identified with them, that he loved them, that he fed them, and that he heard them.
We all have so much to learn. May we approach all of our interactions – and particularly our disagreements – with a desire to be present, and to pay attention. May we listen like Isidore to the end that we might one day look like Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Louise Stanger, “Are You Listening? Understanding the Closeness Communication Bias” (https://thriveglobal.com/stories/are-you-listening-understanding-the-closeness-communication-bias/)
 Published in Listen to the Green (Harold Shaw Publishing, 1981) p. 55
 Please Understand Me: Character & Temperament Types (Promethius Nemesis, 1978), p. 1.