Being present: listening deeply and responding

IMG_8470I am a fan of the radio and tend to have it on throughout the day. Often, though, it is just a background wash to whatever else I am doing and I don’t really pay attention to what is on – be it music or spoken word. Hearing and listening are not the same. We can hear music but not really take it in or delight in the sounds and richness of the texture. The same goes with the spoken word, even sermons and speeches, conversations and in meetings. Hearing the words and sounds is one thing, but to pay attention means that we capture the meaning and the depth of it. We are bombarded with sounds and words from so many sources, not least electronic devices, and we develop a filter to reduce how much actually gets through. We stop paying full attention and this can reduce our readiness to listen deeply not least when we come to worship. To really pay attention we have to be still and listen, and listening is a whole body experience, one where we are truly present in the moment and not distracted by something else.

There is quite an industry in this ‘being present in the moment’ and we call it ‘mindfulness’. Go into any bookshop and you will find quite a selection of books on mindfulness. But it is not new. The principles are very ancient. The special prayer which we have for each week, called the Collect, is a moment of prayerful mindfulness, being collected and present, gathered into a moment of focus. And the first part of this service is designed to get us into the zone of worship, which is why it is called ‘The Gathering’. We gather together, we collect together, we are present in this moment, present in the presence of God. And then we stand a chance of listening, not just hearing.

For a last minute person, like myself, who can tend to rush in at the last moment, this is a challenge. I know that I need to stop and breathe before I am able to focus, to turn hearing into deep listening; to pay attention. And it is only when we truly pay attention, are present in the moment, that we can fully appreciate what is being said or offered to us. It is only when we turn up that we can realize that God is waiting for us and has been for quite a while. This makes the moment an opportunity for transformation as the love of God, as the grace of God can be a gift to us and within us.

Turning up and paying attention lies at the root of our Gospel reading (Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30). Part of understanding that lies in seeing where it comes in the gospel – what comes before it and what has been chopped out of the middle of it, because there is a cut in the middle of the section we heard where 5 verses have been omitted. The chapter begins with John the Baptist in prison. He had heard what Jesus is doing and so he sends a message, ‘Are you real or are you fake?’ Jesus praises John and then he asks his hearers what they expected to find in John. ‘Don’t just hear the words and enjoy the show, but what response have you made to him?’ He then gives the answer. They are like children playing in the market. They pipe for weddings and wail for funerals. People have heard but not listened. They did not respond as they should have responded. The wise are shown by how they act, wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. So the implication is clear, by not responding they have shown themselves not to be wise.

We then have 5 verses missed out from the gospel. In these Jesus lays into his home area. They have seen the miracles, crowds have been drawn and attracted to the spectacle, but the message to repent has fallen on closed ears and minds. The judgement will be harsh.

And then we come back in. What the wise should have seen and heard, children did. The expected order is turned upside down, as so often happens in the gospels. Despite all of this failing to pay attention, the invitation remains. Jesus says to them, in one of the most cherished phrases in the New Testament, ‘Come to me, all who are weighed down with heavy burdens and find true peace’. A yoke is an instrument of control – for animals to make them work, and for prisoners to confine them and keep them in check. With a play on words the binding, the yoke, which Jesus offers fits with their deepest desires. This yoke, this discipline, brings freedom and life.

It is the call to listen deeply and shape life on the teachings and hope of Jesus Christ. Rather than being oppressive this is the path of true liberation and flourishing, because it brings us into contact with the image of the one in whom we are made and redeemed.

Discipline is not a fashionable concept or word. The concept tends to go with the idea of coercion and domination, bullying and trying to make people what they are not. I frequently meet people who have had negative experiences of the worst kinds of religion going. It engenders all sorts of difficulties and damages them for a long time. This is not what Jesus says in our gospel reading. He says, come to me and the yoke I offer fits you; it is light, it is liberating. That which truly blesses us brings us life. That is what blessing means.   So often we have the choice between things which are life-giving and those which are destructive of self and others. And so discipline, having a reference point, a sense of direction and what it means to be healthy spiritually as well as emotionally, is vital. The call from Jesus in our gospel reading is to come to him for that reference point, that health check.

Working out what that means is not instant. It takes a lifetime to begin. But it will only begin when we turn up, when we are truly present and don’t just hear the Word of God, but listen and pay attention. It requires a response from us and so the words of comfort in our gospel reading are only comfortable if we take the call behind them seriously. That call is to be shaped in the image of Christ, to act on what he says, and to live his teaching.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 9th July 2017

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About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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