"I Can't Hear You"
By the Rev. Shirley Funk
What would it take for the whole of the world to just be quiet and listen? Would elected officials and leaders stop blaming each other through shallow and meaningless tweets, hollow news feeds and time-wasting legislative votes? Would the opposing sides of nations at war come to any better conclusions for solving their differences if the bombing stopped and understanding crept into the silence? Would affection among feuding family members grow if certain hot-button topics were never brought up at a reunion? Would two people who were at odds over some real or imagined slight be able to reconcile and once again embrace their friendship if they would more quickly listen than speak? What would it take for us to listen to the needs of a world of hurting brothers and sisters, perhaps even us, who long for wholeness and healing, to be understood and affirmed, to be embraced and welcomed? What would it take?
Here is one of those old “there was a priest, a minister, and a rabbi” jokes the other day. There was a priest, a minister, and a rabbi who were in a rowboat in the middle of a lake, fishing. They had thrown their fishing lines out and were settling in for the wait, when they realized that they had forgotten their cooler of drinks. The priest said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll go get it.’ And he stood up, stepped out of the boat, walked across the water to the shore to their car, and came back the same way, carrying the cooler. The minister calmly continued to fish, but the rabbi was most impressed. About an hour later, as the sun started to beat down, they realized they had forgotten the ice. This time, the minister said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll go get it.’ And he stood up, stepped out of the boat, walked across the water to the shore to their car, and came back the same way, carrying the bag of ice. The rabbi was beside himself with what he had just seen – and not just once but twice. The fishing continued, quite successfully, and soon they ran out of bait. The rabbi, wanting to do his mitzvah, or good deed, for the day, thought to himself, ‘I am also a man of God, so I should be able to walk across the water, too.’ He said to his colleagues, ‘I’ll get some more bait.’ He stood up, stepped out of the boat into the water, and immediately sank. The priest looked at the minister and said, ‘We probably should have told him where the rocks are...’
Did Jesus really walk on the water? And why couldn’t Peter follow in his steps? Why did Peter step out of the boat and falter? Was it doubt or fear or a scarcity of faith that made his feet heavy? Like the miracle story in the verses of Matthew just preceding our lesson for today, the story of the five loaves and the two fish and the feeding of the five thousand, this is one of the most well-known portraits of Jesus painted by the gospel writers. Over the centuries it has become a lasting image of the miraculous, other-worldly, not-so-human Savior of the world, subject to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Walking on the water is the subject of jokes, of sarcasm, of criticism of character. Oh, you know, he thinks he can walk on water, better than the rest of us. In so many ways, this portrait of Christ, which we both revere and question, often leads us to our own private conversations. When we or someone we love suffers from disease or illness, we wonder, “Why can’t I have enough faith to heal?” And when our fortunes are slipping away and we might be on the brink of losing our house or our job or our retirement savings, or perhaps all three, we wonder, “Why can’t I have enough faith to succeed?” And when our hearts are broken by a marriage or friendship gone wrong, by bitter divides of family, we wonder, “Why can’t I have enough faith to feel happy once again?” We see Jesus as so perfect, and in comparison ourselves as so inadequate, and we wonder what hope there might be for us. In the tumultuous waters of contemporary society, when winds of change blow strong and when conflicts and violence make for a stormy and dangerous world climate, we wonder if the hand of God will reach down for us and pull us up out of the raging sea.
Shirley says, ‘When I ventured from New Jersey to the far west of western Pennsylvania to attend college, Sunday evenings were reserved for long lines of students waiting to call home from the one pay phone at the end of the dorm hall. That or a hand-written letter were the basic options of long distance communication in what might be called the good old days. When I made my Sunday evening call, my parents would carefully work through their list of questions to make sure they covered all topics and didn’t go past their self-imposed three-minute basic cost limit. And they spoke loudly. After all, sound had to travel a long way over the wires.’ Well, now we can walk anywhere – on a city street, on a trail in a national park, in an airline terminal, in a store, on a boat, and someone - sometimes seems like everyone - will be holding a cell phone up to their ear and say, by words and a rolling of the eyes and gestures the person on the other end can’t see, I can’t hear you! The voice gets louder and insistent and repetitive, we speak until we get a reply, one way or another. It takes us a while to realize that loud voices will not improve cell tower availability! Those fading conversations are so frustrating, and we can spend a lot of our air time endlessly shouting, I can’t hear you! The alternative, of course, which those under the age of fifty have mastered and far outpace their elders, is to text, silent, swift movement of fingers which create no noise, but may still not get any response. And we can’t actually hear anything, or anyone.
Could our own voices get in the way of hearing the voice of God? Could we be talking and texting and tweeting at one another rather than with one another? Could we be rushing headlong with our own and society’s agendas rather than taking the time to discern what it is that God wants this people of God to do and to be? Could we be so gripped with fear that we start telling others what to do and how to be rather than helping each other discover what God has created us to be? Could we be so filled with doubt that we cannot hear anything but our own selfish voice?
These are the questions we ask ourselves as we picture the Biblical scene. Jesus, alone in a quiet place to contemplate his ministry, praying to his Father to direct his steps and guide his ways, to give him strength and patience and courage. The disciples in the boat, being pushed further and further away from shore and further and further away from their leader in the distance. The waves slapping at the sides of the boat and splashing inside it. Disciples cold and wet and scared, desperate for direction and rescue.
Shirley says, ‘About eight years ago I finally joined the twenty-first century and got a dish put on my roof, a dish to connect me with the world of multiple channels of old movies, sports, and lots of worthless TV. How easy it is, in a down moment at home, when I should be pushing the vacuum cleaner around or scrubbing the bathroom sinks or cleaning out an overstuffed file drawer, to slouch in the rocking chair and flip on the TV, and catch another episode of House Hunters, or Chopped. One evening I clicked on and watched a part of a program, one of those Ten Best of something. This was Ten Best and Most Dramatic Rescues, rescues from raging waters and the brink of a dam, from overturned boats, from the edge of Niagara Falls. People were dangling from ropes and down in little holes. The work of the rescue parties was dramatic, and in spite of my best intention I got caught up in the drama. And, as is the case with such reality TV, I wondered what I would do if I were in the situation. Some of the people waiting to be rescued panicked, some were calm. You could see the desperation in their faces, the wild, questioning look, Have I come to the end of my life? And you could see some grabbing and pushing at their rescuers, out of control and wanting to control their own lifeline.’
And there was Peter, scared and wet and desperate for help and not even seeing who was right there in front of him all along. And not even hearing the voice of rescue.
What would it take to just be quiet and listen? The Church of the Holy Apostles in New York City, is an old structure of gorgeous architecture and stained glass windows. As the neighborhood around it changed in character and characters, the budget dwindled and the bills increased. As one last ditch effort at breathing new life into the mission of the church, in 1982 they began a free lunch program, which in eight years grew from 35 people daily to 900 served daily, stretching the capacity of the mission house adjacent to the sanctuary. Providentially, during roof repairs to the sanctuary, a fire broke out and caused major damage. During the repair, all the pews had to be taken out. What’s church without pews? Before the members of the congregation rushed to the rescue, they paused, and asked, Why not leave the pews out and use the worship space, which was empty and unused Monday through Friday, for the lunch program? They now serve 1,200 meals a day, with volunteers taking the tables down on Friday afternoon and setting up the folding chairs for the weekend. The budget is now $2.7 million, which comes from businesses, foundations, the city – and the 160 members who, instead of closing down a church, are part of a vital and compelling community of faith. Elizabeth Maxwell of the church staff, when asked why they do this, replied, Well, we do this because Jesus said to feed the hungry. There’s no more to it than that. Jesus told us to take care of the poor and hungry and those in prison...In all the intricacies of scriptural interpretation, that message could not be more clear. Those of us at Holy Apostles feel we have a Sunday-Monday connection. The bread and wine of the Eucharist we share on Sunday becomes the food we share with our neighbors during the week. And they have become a lifeline, a beacon of hope in the city’s darkness.
What does this have to do with the waves washing over the boatload of disciples? What does this have to do with our own stormy lives? What does it have to do with our reluctance to trust Jesus enough to step out in faith? Coming near to the end of their rope, these people of God stopped to listen, to listen to their neighbors, to listen for God’s purpose, to listen for God’s direction. I am sure it was a frightening place to be. But whether it is for us together or for each of us alone, we can be assured that Jesus is calling to us to step out in faith, and promising that he will be with us.
Can we be quiet for long enough to hear the voice of Jesus? Can we hear the voice of Jesus speaking to us in the embrace of a friend, in the cry of the hungry, in the language of music and art and poetry, in the languages of brothers and sisters around the world and around the corner, in the blackness of a waiting night, in the hope of a new dawn? Can we be quiet long enough to hear the voice of Jesus?
‘I can’t hear you!’ ‘Listen. Come, take heart, and do not be afraid.’ Thanks be to God. Amen.