Are You Listening?

My husband Stuart and I met while we both were working for Coca-Cola in Atlanta. He was a Political Risk Analyst and I worked in the advertising dept.  He was a dashing, Mad Men kind of figure—and, I was a young thing.  So you got the picture—suit, tie, world travel, etc. Fast forward to three years ago in Minnesota when he was retiring and we were contemplating our move to Virginia to live in his parent’s house. I looked over and he was reading a book called, “Raising Goats for Dummies.” This seemed very strange to me because Stuart is no dummy and we did not have any goats in our condo near downtown Minneapolis.   I became aware that he was entertaining a fantasy of raising goats as part of his retirement. Since then, although we don’t have goats yet, we have spent a fair bit of time researching goats and luckily that helped me with today’s text, because both Matthew and Ezekiel talk about separating the goats from the sheep.

Believe it or not, it can be difficult to tell the difference between sheep and goats in many parts of the world, because they can be the same size and have similar pelts. But you can always tell sheep from goats by their behavior. Sheep are most comfortable with their flock. They are followers. They are obedient. Goats, however, are very independent and don’t stay with their herd. They have a mind of their own and can be quite stubborn. They are not obedient. Sheep, on the other hand, don’t have a mind of their own and are quite dependent on the shepherd to know when to get up, go to bed, eat, etc.  The bottom line is, sheep listen and goats don’t.

It seems that spiritually, we have some characteristics in common with goats. Goats don’t listen. They do their own thing. They eat whatever they want, even if it’s yours. They are very intelligent, but they use that for themselves, not the herd. Whenever we hear parables about sheep and goats, I think we like to think we are the sheep, and distance ourselves from our goat side.

Today is known as Christ the King Sunday, reminding us that Christ is King over all. Jesus says He is the shepherd of the sheep and the goats. It’s not that the sheep are his and the goats are not—the sheep are his and the goats are his, too. The separating occurs within his shepherding. It tells us that Jesus’ is drawing all things to himself – that he is the ultimate gravitational force of the universe; nothing, not even evil, is exempted from his pull. This is the mystery of the kingdom. The divine presence is in everything, under the reality of the world. Theologian Robert Capon explains it this way, “No one scrap of creation, Jew or Gentile, good, bad or indifferent is left out of it. Jesus has literally drawn all to himself….evil is not excluded but provided for. Jesus goes out of his way to stipulate that the Son of man “will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

There are some verses in John that have helped me get my mind around the idea of Jesus’ Kingdom Come with Christians and non-Christians.

The verses are John 10:14-16

“I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice and there will be one flock and one shepherd.”

The verb bring in this verse is the aorist infinitive in Greek, which means brought at one time and has continued bringing. Christ continues bringing sheep to new pens. They will all listen to his voice. He is a talking to a Jewish audience—and telling them that they have a pen with God and so do we Gentiles. And there are other sheep that even we don’t know about.

So what does this mean to us? Christ has everyone’s salvation worked out. He died for the world—and is sovereign over everything forever. It means your brother-in-law, who you think is obnoxious and seems far from being a Christian–he is in Christ’s plan to save the world. And your neighbor who is Jewish – God has a plan for her, too. And, your Muslim coworker. The main point is that it’s not my plan or your plan—its God’s plan. Christ has many pens and many sheep and he continues to bring them to him- to God. There is mystery and trust involved in how that is accomplished. Our job, as given to us by Christ in the great commandment, is to love our neighbor. Just love our neighbor. Bind their wounds, care about what happens to them, be there for them in the hard as well as good times.

That brings us to the distinguishing characteristic of the sheep. They listen. They follow. They trust. Hearing is not the same as listening. Even the goats hear God’s voice but they don’t listen. The Ezekiel text tells us that God is always seeking us, gathering us, feeding us as a good shepherd. Our part is to listen, not just hear.

Unlike the baby of our advent next week, this scripture in Matthew is where Christ is about to go to the cross where he will be imprisoned, alone, naked, hungry, thirsty, sick and a stranger. He will be the one in need of food, drink, care and tending. If we’re looking for Christ, he is telling us where he hides. When he tells the sheep that they have given food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, clothing to the naked, care for the sick and visited those in prison, they are surprised. When did this happen? They don’t remember. How could they not remember? The sheep have learned how to listen to the voice of the Shepherd coming through other people. Listening is the way they live their lives.

I was reminded of this during our Soup Kitchen lunch this week. I got the opportunity to sit down and spend some time with a woman who always seems so upbeat when she’s there- I’ll call her Jane. She greets other guests and remembers people’s names. She genuinely seems interested in what is going on with them. In our short conversation, she told me that she tried to commit suicide once because she was having a hard time. The people who really helped her were not the ones with the best advice or the voice of judgment, but the ones who truly listened to her. When she felt listened to, she was able to bring her thoughts out of the dark and they lost their power. Listening to her when she was hungry for hope and thirsty for a friend was the most powerful gift she was given. I know she spoke the truth because I have experienced that also.

I don’t look like it now, but at one time I was homeless. It’s a long story, but Stuart and I were separated at the time, and I had worn out my welcome staying with my sister for a few months. I drove up and down the East coast with my two elementary aged daughters covering 7,000 miles in 7 weeks, staying with friends and relatives until I could get a job and an affordable apartment. As I heard Jane talk, I knew she was right. The people I remember are the ones who listened and offered me their time, not the ones who told me what to do or judged me for my bad choices. When people are hungry, thirsty, in prison, or naked, either literally or figuratively, listening is a good place to start to live out this scripture.

If you make a study of Christ’s interactions with the least, lost and little, you will see how he listens. He usually asks a question. In Mark 10, he asks the Blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” In prayer, we sense that Christ is listening to us. Yesterday was the feast day of C.S. Lewis, and he said Storge, or friendship, was the most forgotten of all expressions of modern love and at the same time the most necessary. He said, “Friendship is born at the moment when one man says to another, “What? You too? I thought that no one but myself…” felt that way, thought that way, had experienced that.  That is born out of listening—especially to the person you think has nothing to say. This is where Christ shows up– when two or more are gathered in this way.

As Thanksgiving approaches and we are gathered with our family, who sometimes are the hardest for us to listen to, how do use these lessons to learn how to listen not just hear? We can learn to be in the present moment with another person just as they are and be who we are—with acceptance and without judgment. Henri Nouwen tells us that compassion can never coexist with judgment because judgment creates distance, the distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other. Learning how to listen means dropping the judgment and the advice and the fixing in order to just allow the other person to be heard. Think of a time when you felt like someone really heard you? Listened to you and really heard you? This is where Christ is hidden in our world—in that moment of listening and being heard.

As we think about listening, there are four things to keep in mind:

1. Don’t worry about what you are going to say next. Listen with your non-verbals by being present with your eyes and your body.

2. Keep an open mind. The first thing a person says may be explained by the second or third thing they say. Be patient and don’t criticize first. Say, “Tell me more about that.”

3. Ask open questions. You are trying to find out about the person—not necessarily the subject. What did they like about that? What was their favorite thing? What do they remember most?

4. Listen with your heart as well as your mind. Most often, someone will say something to test the waters to see if you’re a safe person before telling you more about themselves.

The benefits of listening far outweigh the risk you take by putting yourself out there. You will feel present in the moment and connected to another human being. You may see and hear Jesus without knowing it, while listening to another person. And you may be blessed with the Storge that CS Lewis described as, “What? You too! I thought it was just me!” Even if you’re thinking, “You don’t know my family!” Offering your time in listening may bridge the gap with your son or daughter,  mother or father, sister or brother. Our time is our most important commodity—we can spend it by listening and we shall see the face of Christ.

Be a sheep today: listen and give thanks to the God who listens to us.