The Rev’d Matthew D. C. Larsen
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)
July 16, 2017
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In college, I took a mission trip to Honduras to help with construction of shelters for women rescued out of prostitution. On one break, I was sitting outside on the street and a boy walked in front of me, bought some ice cream from a cart, and sat down right next to me. We spoke for a while, and then I decided, since it was a mission trip, I should talk with him about Jesus. I looked at him and very pious said what I thought was “Jesus Christ died for your sin.” What I actually said was, “Jesus Christo se murió por su periodicos,” which of course means, “Jesus Christ died for your newspapers.” The boy calmly looked at me, licked his ice cream, and said, “Sí.”
Swing and a miss. Sort of missed the whole point.
After many years of studying the gospel tradition, I realized my bizarre claim, while not theologically true, was not terribly different from the way Jesus often taught. Jesus often taught to confuse people who weren’t prepared to listen. What do I mean?
Always pay attention to the bits of the scripture that the lectionary cuts out. Our gospel reading about the parable of the seeds cuts out seven verses in between the parable and its interpretation. We imagine Jesus as an effective communicator, because he used stories to drive his point home. But in these omitted verses Jesus explicitly says he speaks in parable to confuse those without ears attuned to the rhythms of the kingdom of god.
The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.’
Last year I published an article on listening in the ancient world. We may tend to think of listening as a simple act, but it is not. Pliny the Younger wrote to the senator Claudius Restitutus to tell him about a reading he had just left. Pliny was in a sorry state of righteous indignation. A few clever persons in the audience had listened to the reading of a highly finished and polished work in the most rude way imaginable: they just sat there—still and undisruptive. They kept their mouth closed. They did not wave their hands. They did not even rise to their feet. The audience, it would seem, did effectively what you all are now doing as you listen to my sermon. To us, this is completely acceptable behavior. To Pliny, it was laziness and conceit. That’s because not all listening is the same.
There are different types of listening. Just because you hear with your ears does not mean you are listening with your heart. Spiritual listening is the kind of listening that allows you to see with the eyes of your heart. Seeing is not the same as beholding, even though both relate to the sense of sight. Listening and seeing is not the same thing as heeding and beholding with the ears and eyes of the kingdom of god.
When Jesus ends the parable with “Let anyone with ears listen!,” he is not simply saying, “Now y’all pay attention.” That is the interpretation of the parable. Just because you have eyes and ears does not mean you are really seeing and listening. The question is: how do you hear? How do you see?
It has to do with the way we see complex issues. Allow me to offer one example. This week the Rev. William Barber, president of the organization, Repairers of the Breach, was arrested for protesting the new healthcare bill, which aims to remove protections for the most vulnerable in our society, including people with pre-existing conditions, such as members of my family, while raising costs for others, all the while exempting the people trying to put the bill into law. Their protest signs said, “Love Thy Neighbor. (No exceptions.)” Barber said, “The senators are preying on the sickest and the poorest in this country. That kind of prayer is hypocritical. Their kind of prayer is the prayer that makes God weep, ... We come here today to talk about sin. Sin. This bill, an attempt to use power to take health care, is sin. It’s immoral.” How can we be a nation too poor to provide healthcare to the most vulnerable in our society and rich enough to spend $406 billion dollars on fighter jets? Jesus never said “I’m sorry but you have a pre-existing condition.” Never said “I’m sorry but as a society we can’t afford to take care of the most vulnerable.”
I get that these issues are complex, and I don’t mean to make them seem otherwise. The issue raised by our gospel reading, though, is how we will we listen, how will we see the situation. Seeing and listening with the eyes and ears of the kingdom of god means be attuned to how the most vulnerable in our society are being treated. What would it look like for god’s justice to reign? Jesus stands every time with, and was in fact one of the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, the vulnerable.
What is at stake in how we listen? In the parable, it is a question of do we listening in such a way that it open, receptive, and life-giving. Or are our hearts, eyes, and ears to hardened or shallow to allow life around us to flourish. What is at stake in the end is not only the flourish of those around us, but also our own very souls, as well.
Come to the one who nourishes the soil of our hearts, who teaches us to see, to listen with eyes and ears of the kingdom of god, to the one by whose wounds we ourselves are healed.
 Pliny, Ep., 6.17.1–2; cf. A.N. Sherwin-White, The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 375.
 Taken from http://www.charlotteobserver.com/latest-news/article161200048.html (July 15, 2017).
 Taken from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-07-10/f-35-program-costs-jump-to-406-billion-in-new-pentagon-estimate (July 15, 2017); https://www.commondreams.org/news/2017/07/10/nation-too-broke-universal-healthcare-spend-406-billion-more-f-35 (July 15, 2017).