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 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 holds 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)
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”?
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 of 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 if 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 our 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 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.
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 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 specific 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.
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.