Years ago I was introduced to the writings of Stephen Covey and the famous phrase: “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood”. In other words, listen emphatically to others, and do your best to see things from their perspective. Try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and to view their thoughts and emotions from their unique worldview. Listening is a skill that is honed through intentional practice, the art listening with the ears of your heart, as Paul instructed the church in Galatia: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servants to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. (Galatians 5:13)
Our opening prayer this morning included this phrase: “Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit”. I believe this unity can only be achieved through a transparent effort to understand others in order to be understood. Listening is an art of the heart, a skill that we are called to participate in, as the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians: “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened”. (Ephesians 1:18a)
Our gospel passage for this morning is about someone that comes to follow Jesus and says: “Wherever you are going Jesus, I will follow you”. Jesus sets the question in proper perspective with this reply: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has no-where to lay his head” Someone else says: “I will follow you, but first let me go and bury my father”. Jesus says something unsettling: “Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God”. Another says: “I will follow you Lord, but first let me say farewell to those in my home”. Then Jesus again says something quite startling: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and then looks back, is fit for the kingdom of God”. (Luke 9:57-62)
These are pretty drastic measures that Jesus sets before us. First, we must look at the times. What was going on, and who is Jesus addressing these remarks to, and why? Jesus says, “the foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but I don’t have a place that I can lay down in a place I call home. He lived in the open (without walls), and we read that from time to time he would be the guest in someone’s home, but on most occasions of his pilgrimage, he would sleep outdoors, and at times he desired solitude, to be alone or to be in the company of a handful of disciples, to seek out places of prayer, in the desert, mountain tops, seashore or wherever he could get away.
In this context, Jesus sets the backdrop to this narrative. Our passage starts out with this verse: “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem”. (Luke 9:51) And, this trip into Jerusalem will be a turning point for him and the disciples. He’s giving this message to his disciples: “Just as I have left my home, my mother, my brothers and sisters, so it is what is in store for most of you. I have counted the cost. Have you”?
There is no going back. He’s trying to teach them that He is going to be “all in” on this message of commitment, and the time will be near when they too must be “all in” Nor only did Jesus pay the price for his vision and challenge to the civil and religious authorities of the day. He is talking about a new kingdom and worldview that is contrary to the established religious and civil authorities of the day. It flies in the face of how Jesus instructs them to live and govern their lives. He knows that those that follow him at this time are going to face similar consequences. At that time, it was against the law to call anyone king except Caesar. It was against the law to teach principles that were contrary to the principles of the Roman Empire. Caesar on titles such as “Son of God”, “Messiah”, “Saviour”, “Lord” and “King of Kings”. You see the dilemma Jesus faced as well as all people that followed in his steps.
Thousands of these early Christians were martyred for their faith in the first century. It was a time that they had to make a choice. “Are you all in”? Today many in our world still face those choices, in the territory of Nineveh in Northern Iraq, Syria, Sudan and other places in our world, Christians are persecuted and martyred for their faith.
How can we apply this teaching from today’s gospel reading? We do have families. We do bury our dead. We do say our last farewells before leaving on important trips, and for most of us, especially in the USA, most our lives are not in immediate danger. But, we are definitely challenged. We are instructed to “count the cost”, especially in our decision making. One of things I appreciated about a few of my professors in college and post-graduate work is that I was not required to think or agree with them, just as long as I backed up and supported my position. We all know there are instructors and some people that do not appreciate anybody else’s views except for their own.
I personally think that it’s important to take a position, but it’s just as important to be flexible, to try to view things from somebody else’s perspective, at least to the best of our ability to do so, to vote and to vote your conscience, but to do so with a spirit of understanding and empathy for others. One of the ‘memes’ that have come out in the political arena is the idea of building walls. There are some really good reasons for building walls. Because of weather changes, places all over the low coastlands of the world are either building sea walls or making plans to build walls to keep out rising tides of the ocean. In windy areas of agricultural areas hedgerows of high bushes or trees are planted as walls to keep the high winds from damaging crops. Livestock and poultry farmers build fences as walls to keep out coyotes, wolves, bear and mountain lions.
Walls can also be divisive. I like to think of building bridges to build understanding through dialogue, working to understand others perspectives. If not, it’s always going to be them against us or us against them. I guess I’m enough of an idealist that people can reason and share together, to look at underlying roots, and principles so common throughout the Bible about caring for the poor, not taking advantage of others to your own benefit and servant leadership as a model to leadership to emulate, putting others first, trying to walk in other people’s shoes. As St. Paul in so aptly summarizes: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves”. (Philippians 2:3) What’s the alternative?
I very rarely post anything on Facebook, and I usually ignore controversial issues that are posted positions that fly in the face of civility and gentleness. You know, it used to be when you got together at family reunions and other gatherings, you would know who in the family was liberal or conservative, and what each other’s thoughts were, at least in general. And, we got along in spite of it. Because we knew that regardless of differences, we cared for the good and welfare of each other. I think social media has changed all that. Don’t you? There are family members that won’t talk to each other, and splits that may be too big to mend. It’s all a very sad state of affairs.
When I read some of the contemporary and progressive Christian writers, I am somewhat jealous that they appear to say whatever they want and get away with it. Some writers seemingly have built their careers without much fear of retaliation of stepping on other people’s shoes and feelings. I’m not saying that I always disagree with them, because I don’t. But, I know if I was as blunt and forward in my sermons and articles I would isolate some people that I minister and have a good pastor/parishioner relationship. But, these writers don’t have to worry about offending someone in their congregation or someone that just happens to read one of their books, because they have enough of a following to continue to reach a particular group of readers. It doesn’t matter if they offend someone, because the group of people they are reaching will continue to buy their books and book speaker arrangements.
My brothers and sisters, empathy to me is working with you in committees, small groups, one on one, teaching and preaching the Gospel of Christ. Because when I preach and teach from the sayings of Jesus and the prophetic teachings of the NT writers that instruct us how we should live our lives in service to Christ and in service to others. This two pronged commitment to Christ and to others requires listening and seeing with the ears and the eyes of the heart.
The unity of spirit and understanding that we seek is a sense of humility that we are called to “love our neighbor as ourselves”. We are called to practice mindfulness and empathy. Such is the foundation of the fruit of the Spirit: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, meekness, temperance and faith. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit”. (Galatians 5:22,25)
May we all pursue the art of listening, “to understand in order to be understood”, and to do our best to develop empathy by walking in someone else’s shoes.
by the Reverend Dr. David Madsen