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Call to Holy Listening

Updated: Jul 31, 2022

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 16:9-15; John 14:23-29

The Rev. Cameron Partridge

May 22, 2022

Good morning, St. Aidan’s, and welcome to the sixth Sunday of Easter. It’s amazing to think that already we have made our way through much of the Great Fifty Days, as the season of Easter is known. We are being carried through this holy time by currents of Easter joy and love radiating from the good news of resurrection life. We have also framed this season at St. Aidan’s as one of “ever-moving rest,” an image from Maximus the Confessor that I shared as we began Holy Week and that Margaret lifted up in our beautiful prayers of the people for the season.[1] It strikes me that the shifting of our Sunday morning worship from Eucharist to Morning Prayer and back to Eucharist, necessary for logistical reasons along the way, has had a feeling of ever-moving rest – that even as we have needed to adapt, we have been buoyed by God, by the energy of resurrection life sustaining and enlivening us. Last week our celebration and send-off of Amy Newell-Large, who graduated yesterday – and her loving celebration of this community – very much continued this life-giving current.[2] Today the joyful spirit of the Great Fifty Days invites us into a spiritual practice: holy listening. Listening as an active, loving openness to the Word of life at work among and around us right here and now.

Our passage from the Gospel of John orients us to this practice. Earlier in this same chapter, Jesus shares his iconic image of God’s house as a space of abiding or remaining: “in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places,” or “many mansions” (John 14:2) as the King James translation memorably rendered the Greek word μοναὶ. μοναὶ is related to the verb μένω: I remain, abide, or dwell. It is a verb associated with resting, yet it has an openness to active presence – God’s presence with us and us with God. We are not to be troubled, Jesus says, because God has prepared a place for us, this space of shared dwelling, of active yet restful presence.

As the chapter continues, Jesus has exchanges with his disciples, in which he encourages their openness to his different, unfolding presence with them after his death and resurrection. A few verses before our passage today, Jesus declares, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live” (14:19). This caused another disciple named Judas (not Iscariot, we are told), to ask what he meant—how would Jesus be revealed to some but not others? Then, as our passage begins, Jesus explains that it has to do with loving dwelling. “Those who love me will keep my word,” Jesus begins (14:23). Bear in mind that this is the Gospel of John, a gospel that opens with a new rendering of the creation story: “in the beginning was the Word.” When Jesus says, “those who love me keep my word,” we are invited to hear “Word” as λόγος, the Greek term that can also be translated as reason, teaching, and arguably wisdom (though there is another word for this: σοφία). In love, hear Jesus᾽ teaching, hold that wisdom in our hearts, bask in open awe for the Word through which creation itself has been uttered forth. Listen ongoingly to the loving unfolding of God’s heart in this world. And as we do that, Jesus continues, “my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:23). Lovingly dwell with divine wisdom, and it will dwell with you. Jesus the Son or Child, and God the Father, the Mother, the Parent, will in fact come and make their home with us. God in God’s expansive creativity will come to brood in us, making our hearts, our lives themselves, a holy a μονή– a dwelling place for God, a space of active, divine rest. We are invited to dwell in the creative mystery of divine love, and that dwelling becomes a posture of open listening. Listening for the heartbeat of God in silence, in creation, in one another.

This posture of active listening unfolds in our passage from the Acts of the Apostles as well. We hear first how Paul comes to listen, to be open to the leading of the Spirit, in a dream. He is to go to Macedonia, urgently called by an unknown man. Paul responds to this dream with others, and they sail ultimately to Philippi where they stay for several days and make their way on the Sabbath to a place to pray outside the city gate, by the river. At the heart of this story is a woman who is listening: Lydia. Lydia is described as a woman who was from the city of Thyatira, known for its highly organized trade guilds, including artisans who made valuable purple dyes. Lydia was a “dealer in purple cloth” who was likely in Philippi to sell her dyes (Acts 16:14). She was thus a person of means, as Willie James Jennings notes in his commentary on Acts. And as Jennings also comments, her religious identification is ambiguously rendered in our story: “she was in the space of listening Israel, and from that space she hears the words embodied in these disciples.”[3] A space of “listening”, we are told first of all, because as Acts pointedly states, “she was listening to us” (16:14a). But this was a deeper process of listening, we go on to hear: “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul” (16:14b). Lydia is one whose heart is open to radical listening. Her hearing transforms her. We hear that Lydia is subsequently baptized, and that she then urges “us,” the “we” of the Acts narrator, co-conspirator with Paul who implicitly catches us up in the action: “come, stay at my home” (16:15). Come, we might hear, let my home become a space of welcome and possibility, a space from which the Spirit might send us out together, sustained and refreshed, to join the Spirit’s creative planting in this world. Come, let us be nurtured together in and by the Word of life.

The story of Lydia and Paul’s listening co-conspirators make me think of the experience several of us had yesterday at the Habitat for Humanity building project in our neighborhood. As you may recall, we sent a team to work on this townhouse building that, with donated land is creating eight units of housing where there would have been two. Yesterday as part of an “All Faiths Build” effort, four of us from St. Aidan’s joined representatives of other faith groups in the area, as well as one of the future owners of a unit in the building, to hammer, carry, paint, and most importantly connect, side by side. The future owner and already/future neighbor is a woman and her adult, differently abled son, who is transferring her ownership from another Habitat for Humanity dwelling. She described what a difference it has made for her to own her current unit after the years she had lived in a terrible apartment with black mold, and how she has been able to share her home at different points with other members of her family who have needed support. They have been able to go forth from her home, strengthened and sustained, into new life chapters. In the spirit of Lydia, our new neighbor lives with an open, listening heart. I loved the spirit of collaboration, ingenuity, and shared story-telling that prevailed as we built and painted work tables, constructed ladders, carried new lumber, and began framing a new level of the building. Listening happened both in stillness and in activity, inviting us into the transformative power of divine wisdom wending its way in this world. Come, this Word says to us, open your hearts. Dwell with me. See what unfolds.

In fact, another way we are invited at St. Aidan’s into this practice of active listening is the Vital + Thriving pilot program that we are entering into, as we shared at last Sunday’s Quarterly Parish Meeting.[4]Listening in fact is at the heart of this program, through such practices as “Dwelling in the Word,” the program’s name for a Lectio Divina type practice of listening with a partner to a particular scripture passage and then reflecting back what you have heard. In addition, a listening campaign will unfold in three layers. The first is a survey that will go out in the Flame that all members of our community will be invited to fill out. It will ask questions about our life as a faith community right now. The second layer is listening team that is going to lead a series of interviews with scripted questions, with any of you who would like to participate. Those interviews will be fed back to a listening team of scholars that is supporting this process with a variety of congregations. They will write a report about what they hear from the life of our community, where the Spirit is moving in our community. We will get to hear this more-objective feedback from people outside of us, sharing what they hear, inviting us to dwell more deeply in what God is inviting us into in this moment. The third layer of listening is a Timeline event we talked about in our Quarterly Parish Meeting last week. That event is currently planned for our next Quarterly Parish Meeting on July 31st, the last day before I head out on my sabbatical, during which the Reverend Scot Sherman will be with you. I look forward to that timeline event, for the listening across chapters of our communal life it will invite.

The Word of life has created us, sustains us, and moves us forward. And we, in this space of Easter joy, in that spirit of ever-moving rest, are invited into a practice of radical listening. Where will it take us? How might it feed us? How is it with us, inviting us even now? Thanks be to God for that invitation.

[1] [2] [3] Willie James Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 158. [4]

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