Listen For It

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on John 10:22-30.

Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

A couple of summers ago I attended a retreat at the Bellfry, the retreat house run by Anne Grizzle, where many of you have attended different retreats and gatherings. You know the place. One morning we took a devotional walk out past the labyrinth and onto a prayer path that Anne and her friends had just recently finished. And as we walked along a couple of members of our group were talking about all the birds they could identify from their songs echoing in the woods; and at one point they got particularly excited about one bird they heard, that is apparently kind of rare in this area.

They tried to get everybody to hear that bird. But try as hard as I might, I could not hear it. Oh, don’t get me wrong: there was nothing wrong with my ears: I could hear all the sounds of the forest: the wind in the leaves, the rustles of squirrels in the underbrush, the whine of insects (especially mosquitoes around my ears), even the chirps and notes and tones of the various birds. But I couldn’t hear that bird because I didn’t know that song, I didn’t know the pattern of notes that would identify it, I could not pick just that song out of all the other sounds I heard. I could not hear the bird because I did not know how to listen for it.

And I think that is just precisely the case with the voice of Jesus that we are told about in today’s Gospel. The voice of Jesus is around us all the time. The voice of Jesus speaks to us in every moment. That’s a given. After all, Jesus is the Word through whom God creates all things; therefore every single action of every single thing in every single moment in the entire Universe echoes in some way with the voice of Jesus. The voice of Jesus is with us all the time. But in order to hear that voice of Jesus, we need to learn how to recognize it. We need to learn how to pick the pattern out from all the other stuff that’s going on. In order to hear the voice of Jesus we need to learn how to listen for it.

One of the most important ways we learn to listen for the voice of Jesus is in reading scripture. I know, I know: that seems really obvious, right? After all, the Gospels tell us what Jesus said; if we want to know the words of Jesus it’s no great mystery, we just have to pick up the book and read it, right?

Or, not so much. There is a vast difference between reading on the page words attributed to Jesus, and hearing for yourself the living voice of Jesus speaking in your soul. Reading can be very impersonal, very academic, very analytic; hearing Jesus’ voice within yourself is a deeper matter altogether. It’s one that requires listening.

One way of listening to scripture that I’m learning more about is called “Dwelling in the Word.” Those of you who went to Saturday@Council last January and heard Dwight Zscheile speak may recognize that phrase. Dwelling in the Word is a way of listening to scripture that involves hearing a passage read out loud – not following along in a text, but specifically hearing it read out loud – and noticing where in that passage your attention stops: what catches you? what do you find arresting? what word or image or phrase or feeling really connects with you and speaks to you in the moment?

That’s the first part of Dwelling in the Word; the second part is when you turn to one other person and for two minutes tell them what you heard, and then for two minutes listen to them tell you what they heard. And the third part is when you come back into the entire group and tell everyone what your partner heard. Not your own brilliant insights, but what your partner heard. That way, Dwelling in the Word requires you to listen twice: once to the scripture, and once to your partner.

And then you listen a third time, to what everybody else is sharing. And in all that listening, you begin to detect a pattern: where do you hear love? where do you hear compassion? where do you hear justice? where do you hear peace? where do you hear right-relationships for mutual well-being? where do you hear resurrection? where do you hear life? And as you recognize the pattern of those Christly ideals echoing in the voices and experiences and feelings of the people around you, then you begin to hear the voice of Jesus – not just on the page, not just in an abstract way – but the living voice of Jesus speaking to you of eternal life.

Here at Trinity we’ve begun using Dwelling in the Word at the beginning of every Vestry meeting. More than a simple, pro forma opening prayer; more than assigned questions from a study book; Dwelling in the Word puts all of us in a mindset of listening: listening for the voice of Jesus in the scripture, listening for the voice of Jesus in each other, and, hopefully, therefore, listening for the voice of Jesus in all our business, in the decisions we make and the votes we take and the budgets we pass and the spending we authorize. The hope is that when we listen, when we listen for love and compassion and resurrection and life, when we listen for Jesus even in our business, then we can do our business in the Jesus Way, we can run our parish as part of the Jesus Movement. The hope is that we will act like Jesus, because we’ve learned to hear and follow Jesus.

And learning to listen for the voice of Jesus applies to a whole lot more than just Vestry meetings. If we can do it with budgets and business, we can do it with just about anything! Think for a moment about what it would be like for you to learn to listen for the voice of Jesus in the things you do. In your business. In your budget. In your conversation. In your relationships. In your relaxation. In the things you do for fun. In you sorrow. In your joy. Think about what it would mean for you to hear the voice of Jesus calling you to love and gratitude and generosity and eternal abundant life in all the moments that make up your life. Think how it would feel to pick out that pattern from all the stuff going on around you. Think how you would behave if you went out into your life, your neighborhood, your world, intending to share that pattern with everyone you could reach.

You know, if there is one thing I hope Trinity Church can be for you, it is a place where you can learn to listen to hear the voice of Jesus. In Vestry meetings, in book groups, in Sunday school classes, in outreach projects, in fundraisers, in community connections, in worship – for me it’s especially in worship – in all the things that Trinity has going on, I hope for you that these are opportunities to listen, to pick out the pattern – like hearing the bird in the forest, to recognize the notes that make up the Jesus song in the midst of everything happening all the time. And then, as you learn to hear the voice of Jesus here, I hope you are encouraged to go out into all the other places of your life and hear Jesus there, too. If there’s one thing I hope Trinity can be for you, it’s the place where you learn more and more and more to hear and to follow the voice of Jesus speaking in your soul.

“My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus said. “I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” Amen.