Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sermon: "Hearing Voices"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
January 19. 2014
Isaiah 40:1-11; John 1:29-42

“Hearing Voices”

On Monday afternoon I was sitting in my office and I was surprised to hear birds singing outside my window. You may recall that it was 53 degrees on Monday – it was a beautiful sunny day and I couldn’t resist the urge to throw the window wide open and revel in the spring like feel of this January day. As I sat there looking out at the melting snow and feeling the cool air on my face, I couldn’t help but hear the voice of my late father in my head, sharing the wise words I heard him speak many times before:
“What are you doing with the window open in January?
We’re not paying to heat the outside! Were you raised in a barn?”

It is amazing how we carry these voices in our heads.
These voices from our past that seep into our present and our future.

The voices of our mothers and fathers.
Of beloved teachers and mentors,
The voices of caring friends and other influential people in our lives.

These are the voices, the tapes we play in our head that dispense wisdom and advice, that urge us to be kind and careful, and tell us to put on a sweater so we don’t catch a cold.
These are also the voices that lift us up, urge us on, and soothe our tired spirits when we feel lost or beaten.

Sometimes hearing these familiar and encouraging voices in our heads is the extra push we need to accomplish a difficult task or to get us through a painful time in our lives.  
And sometimes hearing those voices is not comforting at all, because we’re afraid we won’t live up to the expectations that they have set before us.

Last week we heard the story of the baptism of Christ. 
Where John the Baptist pushed Jesus’ head under the water and as Jesus came up for air the voice of God rang down from heaven, saying,
"This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

We have to wonder if hearing the voice of God in that moment was comforting or unsettling for Jesus and John.

For John, it signaled that the time of his ministry and his popularity had come to an end.
He had done what God had intended for him to do.
Jesus would be the revered one from then on.
We may wonder if the sound of God’s voice left John feeling joyous, envious, or relieved.

For Jesus, hearing the voice of God meant that the time of his ministry had only just begun.
After 30 years of living in obscurity he would soon have his every word and action examined, questioned, misinterpreted, and misunderstood.
He could no longer go home and resume his quiet life as a carpenter’s son.
He had taken the first step on the long and difficult road that would lead to his death.

We may wonder if Jesus found this voice from heaven to be comforting, startling, or terrifying.

For Jesus, the voices did not stop there.
As he stepped onto the banks of the Jordan River, before his hair even had a chance to dry, John the Baptist gave voice to even more expectations.  

“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
“I have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God”
After John’s proclamation, John’s disciples ran after Jesus, calling him Rabbi, Teacher, the Messiah, the anointed one. 

We may imagine that these are the voices that Jesus carried with him throughout his ministry.
These voices that may have both comforted and unsettled him.
The human voices that named him as savior and messiah,
And the divine voice that named him as beloved, pleasing, and son.

We carry similar voices of encouragement and expectation in our heads, replaying those moments when we felt lifted up in confidence or pushed beyond our comfort level.
I wonder if Jesus replayed that moment by the Jordan River over and over again as well, whenever he felt uncertain or was in need of encouragement.
When he was facing a hungry crowd of 5000.
When he was looking into the eyes of a woman who was begging to be healed.
When he was saw the hammer being raised to pound his flesh onto the cross.

In these moments, did he hear the voice of God in his head saying,
“You are my beloved son, and in you I am well pleased.”
Did he hear the voice of John the Baptist calling him the Lamb of God, the one who was destined to sacrifice himself to heal our broken world?
Did he hear the voice of the disciples calling him Rabbi and teacher,
and did he find comfort in the fact that he had taught them what they needed to know, and they were ready to continue on their own?

Some would say it’s not theologically sound to transfer our human emotional experiences onto Jesus.
Even if he was both fully human and divine, it may seem diminishing to imagine him experiencing doubt, or fear, or despair.

But we know all too well that the tapes we play in our heads both instigate and feed on all of these emotions and then some, and it is comforting to know that God, through Jesus, has experienced what it’s like to live with a chorus of voices in one’s head.

We may cherish the wisdom and guidance imparted to us by a beloved parent or mentor, but we often carry the voices of our tormentors as well.
The voices of those who tore us down rather than build us up.
The voices of ridicule, belittlement, and shame.
The voices of our past that say, “You’re not smart enough, you’re not good enough, you’re unworthy of love.”
The voices of our present that say: “You’re unqualified. You’re too old. You’re a bad husband, a bad mother, a bad son or daughter.”
The voices of our culture that say: “You’re not thin enough. You’re not good looking enough. You need more money, more power, more possessions to be worthy of respect and love.”

As faith communities, we hear these voices, too.
The voices that keep us from taking risks and walking as the body of Christ in the world.
The voices that say, “It’s too hard, it will take too much time, we don’t have the energy, we don’t the resources, we don’t have enough to go around.”

Psalm 40 urges us to send a different voice in to the world.
The psalmist cries out to God in despair and God responds by drawing him up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog.
The psalmist writes:  “…and the Lord set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth.”

From our own experience we understand that it’s not the literal hand of God that lifts us out of the miry bog and sets us on solid ground, but rather it is God working through human beings just like ourselves.
People who serve to counteract the negative voices we carry in our heads with voices of compassion, grace, and love.
People who act as conduits for the voice of God.

I’d like to share a story that is familiar to those of who participating in our Small Group Ministry program.  The theme of this month’s Small Group discussions is ‘Hope’, and the group reading was taken from Heidi Neumark’s book, Breathing Space.
Neumark is a Lutheran pastor who was called to serve a church in the South Bronx during the 1980’s, when this NYC borough was one of the most impoverished and drug infested areas in our country. Neumark was young, newly ordained, and her congregation had only 20 people and no children. But she had hope in the restoration of her church and the people she was called to serve.

Over the course of several years the church grew to be a thriving spiritual home for hundreds of adults, teens, and children in the community, especially for those who once had no hope that their lives could be different.

Rev. Neumark writes about a time when a consultant was called in to help identify potential leaders in the congregation. His advice was to look for people who already exhibited leadership skills in their family, community, and work environments. In response, Rev. Nuemark writes: 

I couldn’t help but think about the many people I had met who did not readily fit into any of those categories, people whose battered lives left them disconnected from family and neighbors, work and community. People who were depressed. People who were addicted. People who were too sick and tired to do much of anything. What about them?
It made sense that such persons clearly are not in a position to lead anything, but it left me deeply troubled because basically it dismissed a whole group of adults as beyond hope for the foreseeable future.

Neumark goes on to tell the story of Burnice – a woman who would sporadically stumble into church drunk and high and who couldn’t be depended on for anything, yet one day she would become a women’s group leader, a Sunday school teacher, the president of the church council, and a community organizer who got the drug dealers banished from her neighborhood.

Neumark writes:
If I, as a pastoral leader, had looked at Burnice and thought, she’s a crack addict and she’s a mess, and left it at that, then the church and community might have missed out on a great leader.
Some future pillars of the church arrive in ruins.

Neumark admits that a transformation like this doesn’t always happen:
Every addict doesn’t beat his addiction, everyone who has been beaten down will not rise up, at least not on this earth, but we never know who will. Our job is to lift up the possibility, the hope, that everyone will eventually be lifted out of the bog, and find footing on solid ground.

Too often, people who feel hopeless and powerless have voices playing in their heads that reinforce those feelings.
You’re not good enough. You’re messed up. You’re not worthy of healing.
Our role as Christians and as a faith community is to replace those negative and fearful voices with loving and compassion ones.
To use our voices as conduits for God.
To speak and act out of love rather than fear.
To lift up rather than tear down.  
To dream and plan and serve as if we live in a world of abundance,
rather than holding tight to what we have as if we live in a world of scarcity.
To actually believe that amazing things can happen when we take a risk and let God lead the way, rather than the voices in our heads that urge us to be cautious and frugal.

Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
We may wonder what this even means when we live in a world that is still so obviously broken.
We may question how Jesus’ life and death served to counteract the fear, violence, and injustice that exists all around us.

The good news of the gospel is that God does not expect us to change our world, or ourselves, all on our own.
We’re called to sing a new song, and Jesus is the one who teaches us how to sing it.
We’re called to hear a new voice, and God is the one providing it.
You are my child. You are beloved. And in you I am well pleased.

Might we cast our sins onto this Lamb of God – might we lay our brokenness at his feet and say please take this, we don’t know how to fix it on our own.

And might we trust that even in difficult times, God is with us, and will set our feet upon the rock and make our footsteps firm.

Go. Go and sing…sing a new song.
And create the world anew.