Loyal Wirt

"YOU'RE NOT LISTENING TO ME!"

Associate Minister, Rev. Lincoln B. Wirt

April 28, 1968

Scriptures for today:  Isaiah 48:14-18

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Feb 8, 1970 AMPHICTYONY
Apr 28, 1968 YOU'RE NOT LISTENING TO ME!
   

"YOU'RE NOT LISTENING TO ME!"

Sermon preached in First Congregational Church Oakland, California
on April 28, 1968

Scripture: Isaiah 48:14-18

This is a sermon about sermons. The scene is a Roman Court, early in the First Century. A group of Christians were rounded up and caught before the Judge. An honest man, a decent judge, he wants to know what this new religion is all about. "What is a Christian?" the Judge asks. One of the prisoners answers for them all. "A Christian, Your honor, is one who follows Jesus Christ." "So? And who was Be?" "Well, we believe he was the Messiah, the Son of God. They call us ‘Messiah-men’ -— that is, Christians." "Where is He now?" The judge knows the answer to this. "He is dead -- that is, He was killed." "Oh? How did he die?" "Well, actually he was executed, Your honor. He was crucified." "I see! He was a criminal, a traitor to the nation, a subversive!" "No, sir! His enemies used false testimony. His trial was a farce. Anyway, He did not stay dead: He rose from the grave. his friends and disciples saw him. He lives!"

At this, the judge looks down upon the group with some impatience, and not much pity. "Cannot you see how futile and foolish all of this is? Are you wiser than the leaders of government?" he asks. Is it reasonable that a Messiah would end up like that on a Roman cross?" And he thinks to himself how soon Room had best be at the business of exterminating Christians. They'll not resist for long. A very ridiculous business. That's his opinion. But he was wrong. And Rome was wrong. They weren't listening. He had never had a chance to read Isaiah: "0, that you had harkened to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river!"

Back of these simple people, standing in a Roman court, was a simple conviction that God had spoken to them in Jesus, and they had listened. They based their lives not on whimsy or opinion or a vague hypothesis. They had found a highway of holiness and the truth and the trust that would make them invincible, even over Rome! By listening, it happened. By listening to Jesus.

We do have a theology for this. There are theologies a-plenty. High church....Low church....Urban church.... But we don't speak much of "A theology for listening!" In the great church at Columbus, Ohio, they observe each year "Switch Sunday." It comes at Parents‘ Day. The families switch. Parents attend the same youth class or child's class and take their child's usual place in the program of the church that Sunday. Likewise, the children "switch" and do what their parents ordinarily do, on this one Sunday, whether it is to teach a class, to sing in the choir, or to stay in bed, or read the funnies and watch TV, or come to church and listen: I see some complications in a church trying to observe "Switch Sunday." I do not know exactly how the confusion works out with the exchange of identities. But evidently they feel in Columbus they have cut down the need for that familiar cry on all the rest of the Sundays, "You're not listening to me." To put ourselves each in the other's place and to listen to each other, dramatically.

I read between the lines of the Old Testament, and I find this is an old, old complaint. "Assemble all of you and hear. Draw near to me, hear this. From the beginning I have not spoken in secret. From the time it came to be, I have been here." I know it is the fashion to ridicule the Old Testament God who hurled thunderbolts in wrath and indignation, who is not worthy of the promises and the concern of Christ, so we open in preference usually the second half of the Bible. That is a surface judgment. It is an opinion without study, a falsification of faith. The prophets were men who had to listen. We think of them as spokesmen who dramatized man's situation. But mostly they were men who listened to Yahweh; they heard his heartbeat far better than the priests who were supposed to be His handymen.

God is not the imperturable umpire. ‘He bleeds! "O, that you had harkened to my commandments, then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea!" He is an articulate God. He bends over our hypertensive history with longing. He wants His Word loved and listened to. To show there is no split between words and deeds, He lets us plunge over and over again into the agony we bring upon ourselves, and the wars and the fallout and the poison and the napalm, by refusing to act as if we are what we are -— under judgment! So we find there is a justice that must judge our human disasters of greed and deceit and treachery. "The catastrophes of history are not one thing and God anotheri" Isaiah speaks with a voice that deserves to be heard for he has been listening.

A friend traveling in India once told of a large packing case on a railroad platform ready to be loaded on its journey. On its side was printed, "This case should be carried for safety bottom upward." Then a sentence was added on the label, "To avoid confusion, the bottom is labeled ‘top’ ".

To us who have lived by the rules (by the rules we have made), the world is just that confusing, labels or no, especially when we confront the younger generation. Some of you know what I mean for you were present at Men's Club this week as a student undertook to explain to us the thinking of the student generation and their radical political ambitions. It was a night for leveling and being honest. We have not had enough such nights in our Church. True listening. Honest questions and answers that were not dodges. I was reminded of the prophet Isaiah who showed us God is in need of level hearers, people whose ears are not stopped with commercialism, cynicism, and cotton. Let us illustrate a point, and I shall not do it with preaching.

Here is a dilemma. A man and his wife are camping upon a mountain. Let me ask (Douglas Chase) (William Geha) to come here and be the man, and let me ask his wife (Sally) (Norma) to come and play the role of a wife who is fed upl He walks out to the cliff edge, looking over the view. It is dangerous to stand this way because (Doug) (Bill) has not been a good listener. He doesn't know how she feels, and she feels that she's had it -- like a good run and a push that will settle his hash forever. But this, too, is dangerous, because she has not been listening to him. And just as she is about to do for him with a rush, he is going to drop to the ground, and the lady in the case will soar out into space herself, a victim of her own impetuosityi They didn't listen} Well, that's enough role playing. Thank you both. I don't know what's going to happen to these two on this camping trip, but I do know this is the dilemma of families everywhere, of nations, and of ourselves when we hear but do not listen:

To a congregation which may have decided we have a God to listen to, I have a few suggestions.

Suggestion One: If it is a sermon you are hearing, don't look so much for information, but seek a meeting place. The talk from the pulpit is not talk about God to the pew. More honestly, it is God hunting hearers, both in pulpit and pew and choir loft. We're in this together, this new business. God has begun a dialogue, measuring us, daring us, setting up cirses that will shake and jar and rattle us. A sermon has no tag, "To Whom It May Concern" so you may reach out to receive at this point or that whim. The address is direct. Personal delivery. Never mind passing the barbs on across the aisle where someone sits who needs it more than yourself. This is about us. This is packaged to us, and we're listening. Don't bring your own sermon to church. Let the minister alongside of you in that pew.

A Second Clue: So often the Sunday morning message is finite. It is made up of fragile stuff. Human, not divine! The paragraphs may not dovetail rationally. It is controversial, fragmented, perhaps incendiary. Boyce Van Osdel made this striking comment to his congregation at 22nd and Telegraph not long ago: "About the metaphors of Jesus, ‘How can we be salt and not touch the object salted? How can we be leaven and not be swallowed up in the lump leavened? How can we be light and not be in the vicinity of the object illuminated?"" Salt and leaven and light have their contexts. ‘o does any sermon. The setting is honest worship. Do not violate the message and tear the sermon out of context, as if we were sermon—tasters or wanted a few quotes only for the newspaper. Worship is listening -- exposing -- revealing -- confessing the community that undergirds our faith. Covenant is a group response. An honest pew can even redeem a dishonest sermon. Surrounded by honest worship, God often speaks something that the minister may not be saying at all. Therefore, said Jesus, "They that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth." Why bother to do that if we are not mortal and finite and subject to human weaknesses? No sermon stands alone, and neither do we.

Finally, in this "Easy Pocket Guide to Listening" let me say a word or two to the man in the pulpit.-—for the pastor who cannot listen has long ago been confusing spouting with preaching. First, I would say to him, examine your openings and closings. If a man preach only, as Jonah did in Nineveh, for the love of condemning, what then? It is indication of a closed heart. It is a sign of unteachableness, as difficult in the pulpit as it is in the pew. Always expect a dialogue. If it is worth preaching about, it is worth talking back to. Judgment Day is to come for the church, but it will not go in the front door and stop with the front row of pews. The Holy Spirit knows well that tongues have the same faults as ears. They are human.

Because a benediction is pronounced does not mean the sermon is over. Good dialogue goes forth between a minister and his beloved people and lasts and lasts and continues. Nevertheless, a man, a provoking pastor ought to pray that his finite message will have infinite connections. He is mortal, but he serves an immortal God. Amen doesn't mean to stop. It means, "Think on, use your abilities, and come to conclusions, don't leap at them."

So, finally, a minister must know that his purpose is not his own. The Greeks used to say that the opposite of truth is not falsehood but opinion. Trust is discovered by testing it, not talking about it. Love is enkindled by a process called loving the unlovable. A sinner is probably a better preacher than a righteous man. I lean that from out of the Bible. When these relationships occur between pulpit and pew, the sermon can become the most important time in the life of some parishioner some Sunday.

We ought always to bring high seriousness -a your spiritual best, my willingness to connect love with courage in every listening sentence. It is not a children's sermon. It is not a TV spectacular. Your purpose in listening is not your own. The minister's purpose in preaching is not his own. God has called, is constantly calling, as He did to those listeners surrounding Isaiah who did not hear. "0, that you had hearkened to my commandments, then your peace would have been like a river."Let us listen. And pray. Amen.

In every age You have called. And today there is a different language, strange sounds, but they are no less Yours, 0 God. Whatever goals our wayward wills are seeking, let this message tell us, You are near. Amen.

Rev. Lincoln B. Wirt is the son of the late Pastor Loyal Lincoln Wirt of FCCO. Lincoln later was later called as the pastor of the First Congregational Church of Memphis, Tennessee.