“What Kind of Ears Do You Have?”
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
July 10, 2005
Dr. Jimmy R. Watson, St. Mark UCC
Two friends were walking down the sidewalk of a busy city street during rush hour. There were all sorts of noise in the city; car horns honking, feet shuffling, and people talking! And amid all this noise, one of the friends turned to the other and said, “I hear a cricket.” “No way,” her friend responded. “How could you possibly hear a cricket with all of this noise? You must be imagining it. Besides, I’ve never seen a cricket in the city.” “No, really, I do hear a cricket. I’ll show you.” She stopped for a moment, and then led her friend across the street to a big cement planter with a tree in it. Pushing back some leaves she found a little brown cricket. “That’s amazing!” said her friend. “You must have super-human hearing. What’s your secret?” “No, my hearing is just the same as yours. There’s no secret,” the first woman replied. “Watch, I’ll show you.” She reached into her pocket, pulled out some loose change, and threw it on the sidewalk. Amid all the noise of the city, everyone within thirty feet turned their head to see where the sound of the money was coming from. “See,” she said. “It’s all a matter of what you are listening for.”
What are you listening for? We are all attuned to various things. Some of us are more attuned to the sights and sounds of nature, noticing beautiful wildflowers and chirping birds even against the backdrop of cement cities. If that describes you then you are blessed. Some of us are more attuned to the hustle and bustle of commerce, the peaks and valleys of the stock market, and where all the good sales are. Some of us are more attuned to delicious food, fine wine, sweet music, and exquisite art. Others “perk up” when the news is broadcast on television or the sportscaster offers today’s scores. Still others, who are in the search for love and companionship, are more attuned to romantic possibilities. What is it that you are listening for? Life in all its various sounds, noises, distractions, din, racket, clamor, and clatter, speaks to us, does it not? In fact, I hear the golf course calling my name right this minute!
But then there are times when some of us, if not all of us, hear a very different noise in the midst of the hustle and bustle of life. This noise comes from God. It is a holy noise. In some ways it is the most difficult noise to hear in life because it doesn’t force its way upon us. It doesn’t use television speakers, sound systems, or bull horns. In fact, it takes a very special set of ears to hear God’s noise. Fortunately, these ears don’t have to be as big as Ross Perot’s ears. Size doesn’t matter. You may even be a person who needs hearing aids at a rock concert, a person with so much wax in your ears that you attract bees who mistake the side of your head for a honeycomb, or you may not even have ears at all. You just need to have “ears to hear,” as Jesus said, meaning a spiritual attunement to the voice of God.
The question is, I suppose, how do we know if we have these spiritual “ears to hear”? How do we know if are listening to God or to something that “sounds like God” to us? This week at General Synod we all wore tee-shirts, heard sermons, sang songs, and said prayers which all testified to the new motto of the United Church of Christ: “God is still speaking.” I’m almost certain that every single person there believed that God is still speaking. I can’t imagine a Christian declaring otherwise. But guess what? Some people heard God differently than other people did. To use the most obvious example, most people at General Synod heard God say that marriage should be available for all human relationships. Other people, however, heard God say that marriage should be limited to one man, one woman. Who is right? Obviously, both groups can’t be right. Someone misheard God.
Setting aside, for now, who actually heard God correctly and who didn’t, I think we can all agree that sometimes we have “ears to hear” and other times we don’t. That’s just a fact of the spiritual journey. Logically speaking, this means that all Christians are wrong at least some of the time. And to carry that logic even further it means that you and I have been wrong at times and we may be wrong even now. If the possibility of being wrong is upsetting to you then you need to find another way to spend your time other than in church.
The parable of the Sower found in Matthew 13 implies that human beings sometimes hear God correctly and sometimes do not. Jesus uses the image of a sower who went out to sow, an image that would have perked his audience’s ears right up because of its familiarity to people who lived in an agrarian society. Notice that he begins his parable by saying, “Listen!” which I believe sets the tone for the entire parable, a parable about having “ears to hear.” He then proceeds to point out four possible outcomes of seeds falling to the ground. It’s as if Jesus is saying there are four kinds of spiritual ears. I have categorized them as deaf ears, offended ears, distracted ears, and listening ears.
I saw and heard all four types of spiritual ears at General Synod. Some people turned a deaf ear to what others said. Some people were offended (greatly offended!). Some were distracted. And some actually listened. Jesus himself must have experienced these four types of spiritual ears in response to his teachings. The first kind of spiritual ears—deaf ears—are described by Jesus in vs. 4: “And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.” In vs. 19, an explanation is offered: “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown on the path.”
Sometimes the voice of God falls on deaf ears. Maybe we are not ready to hear what God is saying to us, or maybe we willfully don’t listen. Great-aunt Lucy was losing her hearing. A specialist suggested an operation to improve her hearing. But she promptly vetoed the idea, saying, “I’m ninety-four years old, and I’ve heard enough.” Sometimes, our response to the Still Speaking God is, “I’ve heard enough. I don’t need to hear you any more.” I saw this kind of ears in people who from day one at General Synod had put up a wall of resistance between themselves and what was being said by the various speakers and resolutions. Do you have deaf ears? Do you refuse to listen for what might be a possible word from God even before the words are spoken?
A second kind of spiritual ears—offended ears—is described by Jesus in vs. 5: “Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.” Again, an explanation is offered in vs. 20: “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.”
The reason I call this “offended” ears is because it reminds me of a person who will listen to what is being said until something is said that offends them. I recognized this kind of ears at General Synod. I noticed people who were listening and participating and generally having a joyful time. But as soon as the vote on same-sex marriage took place, the ears shut down and they heard nothing the rest of General Synod. This happens, I believe, when a person is not well rooted in who they are. When trouble arises they fall apart, they shut down, they wither away. Do you have offended ears? Do you happily listen to voices that speak only what you want to hear, but refuse to listen when a word is spoken with which you disagree?
A third kind of spiritual ears—distracted ears—are described by Jesus in vs. 7: “Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.” An explanation is offered in vs. 22: “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.”
This may be the most common type of spiritual ears we possess. Most of us are willing to listen even to that which is disagreeable. But what happens next is often unavoidable. We become distracted by the other noises of life. Personally speaking, one of my faults is that I have a very difficult time remaining passionate about things. At General Synod I heard a lot of people speak who were very passionate about things such as same-sex marriage (on both sides of the issue), war, economic justice, and other important issues. I greatly admired their passion, no matter their views. But I wondered if, like me, these same people went home and fell back into the same old routines. The grass needs to be cut, the bills paid, the house cleaned, soccer, baseball, work, etc. When God speaks to us do we listen and continue to follow through, or do we listen and then become distracted by the hustle and bustle of life? Honestly compels us to admit the latter.
Finally, however, there is the kind of ear that is most attuned to God—listening ears. We find this kind of ears in vs. 8: “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” The explanation is given in vs. 23: “But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit.”
Again, I’m not about to presume who was truly listening and who wasn’t at General Synod. I’m not about to presume that on every issue I voted my conscience based on hearing an authentic word from God. But I do know that there is one good way to find out, but it just takes a while. It’s the “fruit.” If what we did at General Synod inevitably bears good fruit then we will be able to look back and say that the delegates heard the Still Speaking God. If nothing good comes to fruition, if what we did ripens and spoils and gives everyone a bad taste in their mouths, then we may have to confess that we didn’t hear God, but only something that sounded like God (to us).
My prayer is that the people of our denomination, the United Church of Christ, have ears to hear. Let us not become deaf, allowing words to go in one ear and out the other. Let us not become offended—a sign of immaturity. Let us not become distracted by that which can rob us of our passion. Instead, let us listen to the Still Speaking God with open, fertile ears, ears that are as clear and clean as a newborn baby’s.