I just got home less than two days ago from New York City, where I spent my summer interning. In New York I was working with two different organizations. The first was our very own Presbyterian (USA) office at the United Nations, and the other was an organization called Auburn Media-an interfaith group that deals with religion and the media, essentially working to create more complicated and nuanced coverage of faith where there seems to be so little today.
At Auburn, I was lucky to have an incredible adviser named Kellie-a now-Presbyterian minister who used to work at PBS before she became director of Auburn Media. She knew I was nervous to write this sermon and I was reluctant to start working on it because I honestly had no idea where to even start. But she sat me down and told me something that helped me finally begin to write. She said: “The great thing about the Presbyterian church is that there’s no such thing as a bad sermon… because it’s not about you. It’s about getting out of the way and letting the word speak through you.”
Here we go.
So, like I said, I have been in New York City this summer – attempting to write a sermon, trying to survive in the city on a student budget, and having “real life professional experiences” in my internships which, according to my college, are supposed to help me figure out what I’m doing with my life. “My call,” if you will.
But I discovered that listening for a “call” can be difficult in the hustle and bustle of New York City. New York doesn’t like silence. The city has a culture of fast movement and clear-cut goals. People like earphones and tend to dislike eye contact.
It was hard to find time to simply be silent and think. There always seemed to be something I should be doing instead. Thus, I found that I had to very intentionally create spaces and times to write and just listen.
There was a great opinion article in the New York Times last month about the modern phenomenon of constantly being “busy” that really hit home for me.
The author, Ted Kreider, argues that the need to be busy all the time is unnatural, new, and not necessarily healthy for our human psyche because we lose the natural space that we need in our lives to develop creativity and insight. He writes, “Our frantic days are really just a hedge against emptiness…I can’t help but wonder if most of this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.”
My favorite professor of religion at Mount Holyoke has told me many times that “religion is about the fundamental question of our human lives: how do we live?”
Now Isaiah, in the story we just read, deals with exactly that. Isaiah, like us, does not know how to live. We don’t know our call. We don’t really know why we’re here. There is no clarity in our human lives. And yet, we are called amidst the mess and confusion.
Isaiah throws up his hands and essentially says, “I’m living in this complicated world full of complicated people and I don’t know how to deal with it! We just can’t seem to get it right and we don’t have any answers. So what do I do with that?”
What do we do with that? It’s a question we face every day. The world is complicated… so now what?
But G-d [sic] responds to Isaiah. G-d says to tell the people “keep listening, but do not comprehend/ keep looking, but do not understand.” There is another translation of this verse from Hebrew to Greek which reads, “You will be ever hearing, but never understanding; / you will be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ /This people’s heart has become calloused; / they hardly hear with their ears, / and they have closed their eyes.”
G-d in this text sets up this poetic distinction between hearing and understanding. Looking versus really perceiving what is before us. There’s a difference.
How often do we go about our days completely absorbed in what we think is important, but at the end of the day we can hardly remember what happened during all of those frantic hours spent being “busy.” G-d says that while we are looking with our eyes and listening with our ears, we are not comprehending with our hearts. We’re not internalizing the information we take in.
In other words, we are not fully present. Day to day – minute to minute. We are not mindful of our surroundings or fully aware of ourselves when we need to be. And that’s the first step, I truly believe, in any religious tradition. How do we live? Well, first, open up and begin paying more attention to the world around you. The Buddha said it, Sufi poets wrote it, and G-d calls us to do it.
Religion, to me, has always been about listening. We are not here to tell people what to think or believe, but rather we are all called to help one another pay more attention. In church, we create spaces to listen intentionally. We have this one holy moment set aside every week to sit still and really listen in community. We open ourselves up to the thoughts and experiences of other people as well as our own – because, honestly, we are not always fully present within our own selves either.
I have learned this growing up in the family I was blessed with and in this beloved community of Forest Hill Church that I was lucky enough to have shape me in my most formative years of life. My entire understanding of how faith is meant to function in our lives began here.
Many of my friends understand religion to be an institution created to give right and wrong answers. But I have always experienced religion as a resource to deal with the sticky questions we face every day in our complicated and messy world.
That, I know, has not been everyone’s personal experience with faith, but I truly believe that our questions are what unite us across every tradition, every creed, and every culture. It is everyone’s story: a narrative of profound unknown.
I feel this call, again, not to tell other people what to believe or that they are wrong in their understanding of religion, but rather to remind them that nothing is black and white. Everything is complicated. If you think something important is also simple, it is probably not.
One of my favorite Mark Twain quotes I heard this summer is “whenever you find yourself among the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
We are each amongst the majority sometimes. We are all guilty of over-simplifying and wanting to close our eyes. It is hard to acknowledge that there might be more beyond a truth to which you have always held on tightly.
It is hard to listen to people we disagree with. Even harder to have compassion for those we disagree with or are angry at and afraid of…or maybe further-to have compassion for other people who might be afraid of us.
It is really hard to deal with the fact that life is complicated and we just don’t have the answers.
But I think that is what is most important about these spaces. Spaces like this sanctuary where John and my mom are brave and trusting enough to let me get up here and try to let the word speak through me. This place where you all are willing to listen to me and challenge me as we all work through our calls together.
We turn to G-d as one and say, “What do we do with all this?”
And G-d says: First, listen.