Sermon: Hush, Hush, Somebody’s Calling
Texts: Exodus 2:23-35; Psalm 18:1-6; Acts 16:6-15
Date: February 17, 2019
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
I’m about to commence speaking. Are you listening?
Listening is the word of the day. Troy Bronsik, the author of the book titled Drawn In that forms the basis of this worship series, identifies “Listening” as the fourth wave in the creative process. He says that artists all have ways of listening to the material with which they are working, whether it is clay or paint or music or fabric or words. An artist may sit with a subject and their material for as long as it takes, waiting for it to speak to them. One of my favorite bands, The Steel Wheels, has a song called “Old Guitar” that expresses this waiting and listening: Sit me down this old guitar, make it speak to me; I don’t want to breathe until it sings, I don’t want to breathe until it sings to me. The artist is attentive, breathlessly so. Another verse points to the creative spirit in the world: There’s a little bird on the branch again, waiting for the song that never ends; I don’t want to breathe until she sings, I don’t want to breathe until she sings to me. It’s as if the singer/songwriter knows that in some sense he and the bird are both longing to sing the song in creation that never ends, and they both need to wait, to listen to hear it so they can join in. It’s a deep kind of listening, with confidence that there is something to be heard. Bronsik puts it this way: “Making necessarily involves listening.”
Bronsik suggests that the creative process of listening applies in some fashion to God as well. God is portrayed as one who listens in many scriptures, including the two texts we heard this morning from the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s an interesting idea to imagine God listening to the material of creation as God goes along in the work of creating. Bronsik writes, “As God’s creative process unfolds, each session’s work seems to speak to God as well about the next day’s work.” Creation does speak in the understanding of our forebears in faith; for instance, the whole universe sings of God’s glory, according to the psalmists. The human creation speaks; the first human is given the job of naming the other creatures. Once talking, the humans keep on talking; they even talk back to the Creator. The human creation, if truth be told, seems to talk back more than listen to the Creator.
I just finished listening to a novel I downloaded from the library primarily because it met this criterion: “Available Now.” It was one of those books that was neither good nor bad, just interesting enough to stick with it to the predictably sappy/happy ending. I picked up on one of the author’s literary habits early on. One of the main characters would be saying something important—declaring their true love or apologizing or the like—and the author would say of the other character, “But [so and so] was not listening.” Many key plot points turned on this simply literary device. One speaks, letting the reader get a glimpse of what they are thinking and feeling; but the other one fails to listen.
I got a little bored with the author’s use of this plot-advancing device, but I do have to admit that there are a great many key life plot points that turn on the fact that someone who should be listening is not listening. A being with ears might be hearing sound like it is only noise; or may be so immersed in her or his own thoughts that they don’t even hear the noise; or they might hear words but misinterpret them; or may only listen far enough to reach a point in the paragraph to which they eagerly want to respond, at which point they quit listening and start formulating an answer; or they may hear speech but miss the subtext being communicated by expression or body language. There are an infinite number of ways to not listen.
In contrast to the infinite number of ways to not listen, listening seems rather singular. Listening is purposeful, focused. Listening involves both desire and ability to hear, and a willingness to hear difficult things as well as delightful ones. It certainly means being attentive to another subject besides oneself. Often one has to set one’s own clamorous self aside, or silence one’s raucous ego in order to listen to another. It’s not effortless. It takes discipline, and implies caring about the one to whom you are listening.
Listening can lapse. As the biblical narrative unfolds, both the humans and God eventually have the same complaint about one another: You’re not listening to me. You’re not listening to me. No, you’re the one who is not listening. No, you are.
I got a couple of biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann’s books off the shelf this week because he really grasps the big picture of the Hebrew Scriptures. I was wondering what he might have to say about whether and how God listens. The text from Exodus makes this claim which is repeated in various ways in the Bible—that when the people cry out, God hears. Yet the Exodus story seems to me to hint that God’s attention had wandered. The people enslaved in Egypt groaned, and their cry for help rose up to God. “God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.” [Exodus 2:24-25]. It’s as if God was listening to something else or absorbed in divine thought, and God’s attention had to be brought back by the squawking of the suffering people. This makes me think of the Dr. Seuss classic “Horton Hears a Who” with all the little Whos yelling “We are here, we are here, we are HERE!” at the top of their voices to get the attention of the other world.
Did God have a lapse of attention, a lapse of listening? I don’t know that we could know about that, but we can deduce that it’s how the people were feeling—that God wasn’t listening to them until they started shrieking. Brueggemann reminds contemporary people struggling with how to read Scripture in this day and age that “the inherent Word of God in the biblical text is…refracted through many authors who were not disembodied voices of revealed truth. They were, rather, circumstance-situated men and women of faith (as are we all) who said what their circumstance permitted and required them to speak, as they were able, of that which is truly inherent.” I like that word “refracted;” we can see the inspired Word of God entering into the human like the sun going into a faceted crystal, and being bent by the light bearer before it shines out on the other side. Brueggemann goes on to say, “It is this human refraction, of course, that makes inescapable the hard work of critical study, so that every text is invited to a suspicious scrutiny whereby we may consider the ways in which bodied humanness has succeeded or not succeeded in being truthful and faithful witness.” We can apply what Brueggemann calls “suspicious scrutiny” to the text’s implication that God had to be summoned by the sound of groaning. Whether or not God spent some time not listening to God’s creatures, the experience of being enslaved and feeling abandoned refracted the way the Israelites remembered the Exodus period.
Still, it’s a crucial testimony in Scripture that God listens, that God hears. And more than listening, more than hearing, God answers. God answers, time and time again. There are times when the cries of the people are answered with just what the people hoped for—liberation, or salvation from enemies, as is the case in Psalm 18. Sometimes the answer is not what the people praying to God or shouting at God were hoping for. Brueggemann points out in his book Finally Comes the Poet that God can both answer and refuse to respond to a specific request at the same time, as God did in the brilliant book of Job. Job asks about divine justice, and God responds with (among other things) a description of a crocodile. “The poem asserts that there can be a profound incongruity between prayer to God and God’s awesome response. God hears and answers Job’s prayer in terms of God’s sovereign freedom and self-regard.” God is, in effect, hearing Job and de-centering him, reminding him that God’s majestic presence is at the center. This incongruous question and answer leads to what Brueggemann calls “appropriate yielding” on Job’s part. He “gains enough insight and reassurance to continue as a person of faith in a world that continues to be unjust. Faith, if it is to survive knowingly and honestly, must live in an unjust world.”
Even when what the people hoped for in terms of a divine answer by a listening God is “profoundly incongruous,” to use Brueggemann’s description, the people of God may experience God as a rock, a refuge in what continues to be an unjust world. We can always take refuge in the love of God, even if we cannot count on God to rescue us from every peril. That’s what I love about the language in the opening of Psalm 18: “The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” One of the UCC devotional writers in recent months spelled this out as “refuge, not rescue.” We can groan and cry out for rescue—we need not censor our prayers—and take refuge in the powerful love of God even if rescue does not come specifically in the way we hoped for.
It’s vital to keep talking and listening to God through all the ups and downs. “Muteness,” Walter Brueggemann points out, “is practical atheism.” It’s when people get so discouraged or so mad at God that they stop speaking to God that God’s creative Spirit is hindered. The creatures must keep speaking our hearts to the Creator so that God can listen to “the material of creation” and involve the creatures in the ongoing work of creation as co-creators.
The creatures are also called upon to listen to our Creator, of course. The story we heard from the book of Acts is a marvelous tale of listening. According to Acts, first the Holy Spirit and then the Spirit of Jesus prevented Paul and Silas from speaking in Asia and from entering Bithynia. We don’t know why the Spirit keeps them from preaching in certain places; we are just given to understand that the missionary movement is dynamic, organic. Plans have been made, but the plans are subject to change when the missionary leaders listen to the Spirit. Paul and Silas wind up in Macedonia after being blocked from going where they planned after Paul listens to a dream vision, a dream of a man from Macedonia begging them to come and help. At once they change their plans and make arrangements to go there, understanding the dream as a divine revelation. Paul and Silas seem to have developed mature instincts for following the Spirit’s lead.
We may think of them as models for listening to God in this story. We also want to learn to listen to the Spirit, to follow the Spirit’s lead. Still, we know that not every impulse is Spirit guided. Remember, our experience of the Word of God is refracted through our very human circumstance and situation—that goes for our personal experience as well as for Scripture. Chaplain Burt Burleson wrote a commentary on this story noting that “It has become common in pietistic jargon to reference something as being “a God thing.” Often this is the explanation if something worked out well for us or perhaps seemed unusually coincidental. As always, this “god-talk” can cheapen our message and our theology of providence, as well as turn thoughtful seekers away. “So, God got you a place in the sorority, but allowed Syrian children to be driven from their homes?” Surely this flippancy is “taking God’s name in vain.” It’s more likely that God is speaking and calling to us if we are open to hearing the cries of those who are suffering, as Paul and Silas did. “Where people are open and people are hurting, the gospel movement goes.”
Lydia gives us a picture of the transformative power of the gospel in the way she listens to Paul at their place of prayer by the river. The Spirit draws them together, and Paul’s openness to being there to speak and Lydia’s openness to being there to listen come together. The beloved community advances in a new location. Lydia immediately demonstrates her understanding of the gospel by offering hospitality to the traveling strangers. It’s altogether a beautiful story of listening and speaking, set in motion by faithful people listening to God who is listening to the people’s needs. God’s creativity unfolds in such a setting; creation advances toward God’s aim for love and beauty and harmony.
Years ago I heard a phrase from theologian Nelle Morton that has stuck with me: “Hearing one another into speech.” It’s based on Morton’s experience in the women’s movement, typified by this story: “I remember well how one woman started, hesitating and awkward, trying to put the pieces of her life together. Finally she said: “I hurt… but… I don’t know where to begin to cry.” She talked on and on. .. When she reached a point of most excruciating pain no one moved. No one interrupted. Finally she finished. After a silence, she looked from one woman to another. “You heard me. You heard me all the way.” Her eyes narrowed. She looked directly at each woman in turn and then said slowly: “I have a strange feeling you heard me before I started. You heard me to my own story.” Morton found that she had come to a new understanding of listening and speaking, “a complete reversal of the going logic in which someone speaks precisely so that more accurate hearing may take place. This woman was saying, and I had experienced, a depth of hearing that takes place before the speaking – a hearing that is far more than acute listening. A hearing engaged in by the whole body that evokes speech –a new speech—a new creation. The woman had been heard to her own speech.” She goes on to reflect on the “great ear at the heart of universe” hearing human beings to our own speech.
Suppose God is the great ear of the universe hearing us into our own speech, calling us into our own best lives. And suppose that we are, as co-creators with God, in a sense hearing God into speech as well. As we listen intently for God’s call on our lives, God calling our names, we join the Creator in the work of creation. God listens to the creatures, the material of Creation, and we mirror the great ear of the universe by listening for God’s prompting to go where there is need of more love. Let us live with confidence in the God who hears us and answers us, even if the answers we yearn for aren’t always the answers we get. And let us live as those in whom God can have confidence as we listen daily for God’s claim on our lives and on our community. Hush, hush; Somebody’s calling our name. Are we listening?
  Brosnik, Troy Drawn In: A Creative Process for Artists, Activists, and Jesus Followers Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013, p. 33
 Bruggemann, Walter in Struggling With Scripture [Co-authors: William C. Placher and Brian K. Blount] Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002, p. 12
 Brueggemann, Walter Finally comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989, p. 61-62
 Ibid. p. 62
 Ibid. p. 60
 Morton, Nelle “Beloved Image” essay in The Journey is Home quoted in a sermon online http://cloud2.snappages.com/5624a7c26130d73fd8bc02853fb40190b5aa1249/Hearing%20Eachother%20into%20Speech%20-%20May%2024,%202015.pdf