“Can you hear me now?” was the theme of an advertising campaign a few years ago. If I recall correctly, it was a campaign for a cell phone company, showing people standing on their heads, leaning out of windows, hopping on one foot, etc., trying to get better cell phone reception.
Cell phone service is a bit better these days, but I think we are hearing each other less and less. The image of an aging movie star talking to an empty chair at a political convention is perhaps emblematic of the age we live in, no matter which political party you sympathize with. You can talk all you want to an empty chair, but you never have to listen to anything it says in return. In fact, if you want to, you can put your own words in its, umm, mouth, and have a conversation with yourself. God forbid you should have a conversation with someone you disagree with.
The gospel lesson we had on Sunday, Sept. 9 (Mark 7:24-37) surely has to be on every preacher’s list of her/his least favorite gospels to preach on. Yet surely, if we open our ears the way Jesus opened the ears of the deaf man, surely this gospel has something very important to say to our age of closed ears and closed hearts.
I’ve read various excuses for the way Jesus behaves in this passage – calling a poor, desperate woman seeking healing for her beloved daughter a “dog.” And I’m not satisfied with any of them. I don’t think he was justified in testing her – I don’t find that any more attractive than calling her names. I don’t think he was conspiring with her, winking at her as he called her a dog, while he tested the disciples to see what they would do. I don’t think he was calling her a cute little fluffy puppy. I don’t think he was telling her just to wait a little while and her turn would come.
I think he meant what he said – he believed that his mission was only to the Jews.
But then she spoke, and he listened. Jesus changed his mind.
And yes, lots of us have trouble with the idea that Jesus might have changed his mind. We want him to be all-perfect and all-knowing, from the very beginning. We want him to have sprung full-grown from the womb of his blessed mother, reciting the complete works of Shakespeare (which hadn’t been written yet, but that wouldn’t matter to the Son of God).
But Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, so what if he needed to go through life learning and discerning his mission, just like we do? What if he relied on the same cues we rely on to learn what God is calling us to do? What if he had to worship, and pray, and read the Bible, and spend time talking with the people of God, and work to listen to the surprising insights brought by other people, in order to understand his mission, bit by bit?
He would be like us. Because that’s what we have to do. We have to worship, and pray, and read the Bible, and spend time in Christian community, and work to listen to the surprising insights of the people around us, in order to understand the mission of our church.
Why are we restructuring the church? Why are our attendance and finances in decline? Why is everything around us changing, and why are we failing to change alongside it all? Why are we in an Acts 8 Moment?
Maybe we haven’t been listening to the people around us. Maybe we’ve been answering questions they haven’t been asking. Maybe we’ve been fighting battles they’ve already settled. Maybe they have been listening to the sheer deafening volume of noise coming from the church, and they have just gotten tired of our shouting.
So what if we tried listening for a change? What if we went to our neighborhoods and the people we serve and asked them what problems and issues are on their hearts and minds? What if we sat down with community leaders and asked them what are the biggest problems in our cities, and what could we do to serve the people in them? What if we asked our non-Christian neighbor where she finds God, or spirituality, or ultimate meaning, and truly listened to what she had to say? I believe that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life, but evangelism begins by meeting people where they are. What if we tried to listen and then discern what kind of emptiness God is calling the church to fill?
If Jesus listened to someone and changed the way he understood his mission, so can we. Can we hear them now?