A culture of encounter

This is a sermon for the twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church up the road.”  The Scripture it references is Luke 21:5-19.

I know that one of the small groups has been doing some work over the last little while on “sharing Jesus without fear,” and although I haven’t been able to go, I’m glad that they’re looking at such an important topic.

In a way, I think this morning’s gospel reading tells us something important about sharing Jesus, too; but it might need a little bit of unpacking to see the implications.

Jesus tells his disciples that when they have an opportunity to testify, (because of being persecuted), they should make up their minds not to prepare their defence in advance, because they will be given the words and the wisdom at the time.  And that’s all well and good, at one level, but one might wonder – especially if, like me, you’re a little bit prone to anxiety and you like to be prepared – why you can’t be given the words and the wisdom in advance, when you’re carefully and prayerfully preparing.

After all, we expect it to work that way for sermons, don’t we?

But the thing I learned at college, when I was being taught to preach, is that good sermon preparation doesn’t start when you sit down surrounded by all the best books, determined to craft the best possible explanation of the text.

Good sermon preparation starts at people’s hospital beds, over cups of tea in the kitchen, in the ordinary things of parish life; and it starts with listening.  It starts with really hearing where people are struggling, what people are feeling and thinking.  And it’s only after you’ve listened carefully to all of that, that you come to the books, ready to make connections between the text and the things that you’ve heard from people’s hearts.  That – or so I was taught – is where a good sermon draws its power from; from the hopes and faith and fears of the people listening to it; the people who have already been listened to and heard and who are now being spoken to with genuine love and care.

That’s the ideal, anyway.  I leave it to you to judge whether or not I often get near it.

But the reason I tell you about that is because it seems to me that sharing Jesus in other situations is a bit the same.  You can sit down and write the best, truest, clearest explanation of the hope that is offered to us in Jesus, but if you share it in a way that totally fails to connect with real people, it’s a pretty pointless effort (and hence we get “Bible bashing”!)

On the other hand, if you can really listen to people, hear their needs and longings and know them for who they really are, then you can respond by presenting the gospel in ways which really connect with those realities.  You can answer need with promise, longing with hope and identity with meaning and purpose; you can present each person with a tailor-made explanation which fits them perfectly.

And I suspect that that’s why the disciples are told not to prepare their words in advance.  Not because the Holy Spirit couldn’t help them prepare an absolutely knock-out argument, but because it would be something totally impersonal, and lacking in any connection to the people who would eventually hear it.  Think how many of the sermons in Acts are given before rulers and judges, and how they weren’t just a defence for the person being accused, but also were an appeal to the ruler or judge to take on board what they were hearing for themselves.  But you can only make that kind of appeal effectively if you’re willing to take seriously the person sitting in front of you, for who they are.

The point of this, for us, I think, is that it shows us how important it is to be people who really listen.  We can’t expect to create opportunities to share our faith in genuinely life-changing ways, if we’re not building relationships in which the other person is really known and valued for who they are.

Listen first.  Then speak.  (Maybe think in between, too).

I think this is one of the things which has made Pope Francis someone so admired.  People talk about his compassion, but it’s more than that; he’s gone out of his way to put himself in situations where he can really listen to, and connect with, people who wouldn’t normally get to speak to a Pope.  And then the things that he’s heard have shaped the way that he speaks and writes, so that the genuine hurts and needs of real, ordinary people are actually being taken into account.

What fascinates me about this is that it’s driving some more “traditional” Catholic people quite nuts.  They think the job of the Pope is to speak first, to articulate official Catholic positions, and to require all the faithful to adhere to them.  Francis’ approach of listening first, and then trying to lead the church in ways which actually open the doors of faith and hope wider, so that more people can walk through them, is to them something of an abandonment of what the church should stand for.

But Francis talks about creating a “culture of encounter.”  A church culture in which our encounter of people who are not part of our church community allows us to relate to them, in ways which allow them to encounter something of God.

And it starts with us listening.

As I think about it some more, this shouldn’t seem counter-intuitive or surprising.  After all, God does this with us, too.  I know it’s certainly been my experience that God meets me where I am in life.  He didn’t tell me, for example, when I was twenty-one and deciding to be baptised, that oh, by the way, eventually this would mean ordination (which is just as well, because I wasn’t ready to think about that!)  No; God knew where I was at and gave me just enough to take the next step.  Over and over again in the Psalms we read about God listening to us; our cries, our prayers, our requests; and responding to us at our point of need.  Not overwhelming us with teachings we’re not ready for or demands we can’t meet, but in his love and mercy measuring his goodness to us by what we can handle.

Of course God knows us perfectly and doesn’t have to get to know us in the way that we need to get to know one another, but the basic principle holds of tailoring what is being given to the person who is receiving it.

So from this gospel passage we can take more than just assurance that the Spirit will help us to find the words to say (although that is there too).  I think we find encouragement not to take on the task of sharing our faith as if it were an abstract thing, but to create a genuine culture of encounter, in which we take other people seriously, and getting to know them and their situation as the starting point for any meaningful exchange.

So that’s my encouragement to you, as we seek to build one another up in Christ.  Listen.  Really listen.  And then trust that God will be at work in what comes after that.

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