Listen First

A sermon preached on September 7th, 2008, based upon Matthew 16:24 – 26, and on the occasion of Michael Soriano and Jennifer DeMaio taking the vows of membership to be a follower of Jesus in this community. 
I want to tell a story of the first time I believe I met Michael Soriano, who this morning, along with his wife Jennifer, decided to follow Jesus as a member of this church family. A while back there was a vigil being held in Lake Hiawatha marking the fourth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, and a friend invited me to go. Feeling sympathic with the spirit of the event as I understood it, I went.
For a several minutes a group of maybe thirty of us stood around holding candles and a few placards on a fairly deserted street. It was nice, but I couldn’t help wonder whether we were accomplishing anything. At one point, however, a car pulled up in front of us, and a man stuck his head out the window and starting angrily yelling at us. Some of the people in the vigil started shouting back just as angrily at him.

The guy drove off, but he was back a couple of minutes later, having brought something within him. For a moment I thought maybe he’d brought a gun, but no, it turned out to be a big American flag on a pole which he defiantly stuck in the ground in front of us.

I had various reactions. One was, “Great, a response.” We’re out there in order to make some kind of witness; here, finally was an indication that someone was paying attention.

But I quickly became disillusioned about this not so much by the words spoken by this man, but rather by the tone struck by several of the people I was with… bombshells of rhetoric, insulting comments about the man’s intelligence. It seemed clear to me that they didn’t have much interest in engaging in real conversation. They preferred the self-centered conviction that they were totally right and he was totally wrong, while enjoying the adrenalin rush that comes in trying to beat down an enemy.

And this was supposed to be “peace” vigil.

The one exception that night was Michael Soriano, who drew close to the man, and in contrast to the shrill, attacking tones of others, spoke softly, attempting to dialogue with him on the issues at stake in war and peace.

“I have decided to follow Jesus.” Followers of Jesus are called to be peacemakers.

The questions that were addressed to Jennifer and Michael this morning, as well as to all of us, dealt with the reality of evil and the struggle of goodness against evil in this world. One of the great insights of Christianity is that the battlefront in which this struggle takes place isn’t just out there somewhere, it’s right here, running through the soul of each of us.

Jesus said, how can you call attention to the speck in your neighbor’s eye when there is a log in your own eye? Right after blessing Simon Peter, he called him “Satan.” “Get behind me, Satan!” We are Simon Peter. We can never forget that although hopefully God is using us to do some good in this world, Satan also speaks through us as well.  When we try to demonize others, Jesus would remind us to face up to our own demons first.

The presidential campaigns are in full swing, and I should feel grateful for living in this great nation where democracy has some fairly deep roots. My son Andrew recently arrived for a four month stay in Thailand at precisely the moment when tens of thousands of demonstrators had taken to the streets in an attempt to drive out the prime minister, a man who had been brought to power by another coup just a year or so earlier. The stability we enjoy here in the democratic process is remarkable.

And yet I find myself feeling disillusioned by partisan politics — the failure to engage in real dialogue with people of differing points of view; the way we so often talk past one another without ever really listening.

Jesus said, “If anyone would follow me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Here is a pretty down to earth way to understand what it means to deny ourselves in following Jesus: Deny ourselves the gloating satisfaction of “being right” that seems so preferable to the hard work required in truly listening to another person express their point of view, especially when that point of view is quite different from our own. Make it a goal of trying to truly hear what another is saying, and to listen for the words beyond the words; the unspoken fears and hopes that are a part of their point of view. Deny yourself the thrill that comes from beating your opponent into submission with rhetorical points.

Listen first.