Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Whose Word Do We Hear? (Luke 8:16-18)

(Homily for the University of Sheffield Chaplaincy's Ecumenical Communion on May 6, 2015)


Words That Make Up Who We Are

I’ve heard it said that our body is knit together by words. Words that are intricately woven by others: family, friends, workmates, the media. The way we live—the way we wake up, prepare for the day, eat, interact with others, sleep —all of this tends to follow a script that has been written, spoken by others. That’s certainly been the case for my eating habits. As a child, I would be woken by my mom—“Uppy uppy, little puppy”—to eat a hearty early breakfast; I would hear my dad announce lunch around noon; and I would be called in from play to eat a filling dinner around 6 or so (I guess that would be “tea” in Yorkshire?). This is the script my body followed all my life. Until Sheffield. Until I began living with housemates from all over the world, housemates who would eat breakfast at 11 in the morning and dinner at 9 in the evening. Until one day, someone overturned my world with the simplest of questions: “Why not just eat when you’re hungry?”

Eat when I’m hungry. A logical idea. Except that I quickly discovered, this wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Having always eaten according to the routine written into my body—one that, admittedly, served me very well—I was out of touch with my body itself. I couldn’t hear what my body, my stomach was saying to me. When the clock struck 6 in the evening, all I could hear was the echo of my Mom calling to my brother and me, “Boys! Dinner’s ready.” But what about my body itself? If I had shared a late lunch with my housemates just a few hours before, maybe it wasn’t hungry? Maybe it was saying a new word: “Dinner can wait.”

I imagine there are countless other examples, for me and for you, when the habits inscribed on our bodies speak more loudly than our bodies themselves. When we hear the words that were spoken in the past more clearly than any word being spoken in the present. And similarly, countless other instances when we hear the words we are familiar with more easily than another person’s actual words. When we somehow manage to transform another’s words into the words we’re expecting. Like in those debates where it’s clear that neither person is really listening to the other but rather merely reciting rehearsed lines and memorized quips past each other’s heads. We are indeed an entwined mass of words. Words that others have been woven into our bodies, words that we recite to ourselves to make sense of life. Words that make up who we are, how we think.

Whose Word Do We Hear?

And I think it is just this bodily tapestry of words that Jesus is addressing in our Gospel text today. At this point in Luke, he’s been talking a lot about the word of God. And here he says it’s like a lamp. It’s set out in plain view, meant to give light to everyone. The word of God, in other words, is obvious. Immediate. Right in front of our eyes. It’s not supposed to be hidden. It’s getting itself said out in the open, out in public, so that those who enter this world may see its light. As Jesus says in the parable preceding today’s text, the word of God is like seed sown generously, indiscriminately, over every sort of land. Sometimes the heart is like fertile ground and receives it. But other times the heart doesn’t because things like cares and riches and pleasures get in the way. Because our concerns—that entangled body of words that keeps us focused on ourselves—keep us from hearing a new word, God’s word.

So what’s to be done? How do we till the grounds of our heart, to make it fertile soil for the seed of God’s word? How do we allow a new word, God’s word, to be knitted into our body? Jesus’ answer is almost too simple: “Pay attention to how you listen.” Pay attention to whose word you’re hearing. Is it your own word, a word you’ve heard before? Or a new word—perhaps the word of God?

The Word of God:
Hearing It

And the word of God, remember, can be heard anywhere. It’s like a lamp set out in public, obvious, immediate, in seeing distance of us all. It inhabits all of life. If Jesus is to be believed, it lives in our own fleshly bodies, yours and mine, from the most prominent of us down to the very least of us.

So when we read the Bible…when we hear another person speak…when we listen to one another’s own honest experience: let’s pay attention. The word of God. It’s right there, right in front of us. It’s not hidden. It’s no secret. It’s as near to us as our very bodies, as near to us as the grumbling of our tummies, as near to us as the sighs and groanings too deep for words (Rom 8:26).

Shed all those old words that have been woven into your body, and listen for what’s right in front of you. The word of God lives somewhere in our laughter, our grimaces, our tears. Somewhere in our dimples and our furrowed brows. Somewhere in the questions we can’t answer with words.[1] Maybe we feel injustice and the silent word of God crying for a touch of peace and healing. Maybe we feel an inexplicable love for a stranger and the silent word of God pleading for compassion. Maybe we feel lost and the silent word of God drawing us toward a trusted companion. Maybe we feel forgiven and the silent word of God inviting us into new life. Maybe we feel sadness and the silent word of God affirming the goodness we so desire. Maybe we feel blessed and the silent word of God crying for us to bless others.

The Word of God:
Doing It

In the verses immediately following our text, Jesus says that any who hear the word of God and do it are his family, his kindred—we might even say, his body.

So whatever truth we feel in the slenderest fibers of our body, let’s be ready to respond. To do the word of God that we hear. To say goodbye to old words and to welcome new words—and a new world.


[1] All of these examples, it seems to me, point to our experience of “the other in me.” I am reminded, for instance, of the narrator’s remark in Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004), 6: “It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over. … I wonder what it is and where it comes from, and I wonder what it expends out of your system, so that you have to do it till you’re done, like crying in a way, I suppose, except that laughter is more easily spent.” In other words, genuine laughter and tears, like genuine anger and joy, seem to come from a place deep inside us that is not completely us. They point to a mysterious connection with what is beyond us, with what might perhaps be a trace of God—indeed, I would imagine as much, considering the embodiedness of the divine in scripture.

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