Sermon - Sunday, 14 January 2018

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 14 January 2018.

Scripture: 1 Samuel 3: 1-10 / John 1: 43-51

Text:  Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel, Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening’.               1 Samuel 3: 10


Later this month I have an appointment at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary’s audiology clinic at Lauriston Place.

For some time I have been aware of difficulties with my hearing – needing the volume on the television turned up, holding the telephone to my left rather than my right ear, asking people to repeat something – and so finally an appointment was made.

Sure enough, after all the tests, the audiologist confirmed that while there was slight hearing loss to my left ear, there was significant hearing loss to my right ear.

And so later this month I will be fitted with a hearing aid, final confirmation according to the family that as the years go past not only do I look more and more like my father, I am turning into him.

I mention this – partly to apologise to anyone who thinks I have ignored them when they spoke to me recently – but more importantly to draw out the important distinction between hearing and listening.

It is the distinction captured in the old story of the wife’s complaint about her husband – that there was nothing wrong with his hearing; the problem was he just didn’t listen!

In this sense hearing is the power or capacity to perceive sound whereas listening is the power or capacity to pay attention to what is being said.

So don’t just hear but listen, listen to the poet as he describes not just the importance of silence but suggests that the work of the poet is the interrogation of silence:

Therefore he no more troubled the pool of silence
But put on mask and cloak,
Strung a guitar
And moved among the folk.
Dancing they cried,
Ah, how our sober islands
Are gay again, since this blind lyrical tramp
Invaded the Fair!

Under the last dead lamp
When all the dancers and masks had gone inside
His cold stare
Returned to its true task, interrogation of silence

From the poem’s opening word Therefore it is clear the poet is engaged in an ongoing dialogue and not just with the reader but with life itself.

It is a costly dialogue, one that demands the poet leave behind his pool of silence, put on a mask and cloak and pick up his guitar.

A popular figure, the villagers are much entertained by his presence and songs and stories.

Yet when the dancers have finished dancing, the village hall lights have been turned off and everyone has gone home, the poet resumes what is described as his cold stare.

While he participates in this world of masks and cloaks and dancing and music and helps enliven it, evidently the poet does not belong to it.

Instead he has a different calling, a different vocation; his true task is the interrogation of silence.

The poet in question is the Orcadian George MacKay Brown, a troubled genius if ever there was one, a man subject to bouts of depression, an alcoholic, yet with a gift for words few can match.

Entitled The Wound and the Gift my colleague and friend Ron Ferguson’s biography of George MacKay Brown is both raw and compelling and one of the things it reveals is the extent to which Brown’s insights were shaped by his Christian faith.

An adult convert to Roman Catholicism, mystery, prayer and silence were at the heart of MacKay Brown’s faith and helped shape his poetry.

And one of the features common to faith and to poetry is the capacity to listen, not just to hear the sound of the words but to pay attention to what is being said.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel, Samuel!’

The call of Samuel is one of the great passages of Hebrew scripture, not least because in the interrogation of silence it sets before us the power of listening.

Samuel is a pupil of Eli, a priest, who is training Samuel for the priestly duties of offering sacrifices and carrying out the ceremonial rituals of the Jerusalem temple.

Priests normally became priests by being born into a priestly family whereas prophets were those who received a personal calling from God.

And so we learn that one night, while supporting Eli in his duties at the temple, Samuel dreams and in his dream he hears a voice.

Thinking it was Eli calling him, Samuel ran to his master expecting to be given a task only to be sent back to lie down again.

On the third occasion Eli has the wit to realise it is God speaking to Samuel so the young man is sent to lie down but told what to say if he hears his name again.

And as once again the Lord stood and called, Samuel, Samuel, this time the young man replied;

“Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Listening to the story, you notice it is early morning and still dark.

Listening to the story, you realise that as well as being dark, at this time of the morning the temple and the world outside would be very still.

Listening to the story, you see Samuel asleep beside the Ark of God.

And it is into this silence that Eli perceives and Samuel finally hears the voice of God addressing him.

The Bible has a lot to say about the importance of stillness and silence and listening.

As he ran for his life Elijah hid in a cave.

Yet it wasn’t in the great and powerful wind that tore the mountain apart and shattered the rock, or in the earthquake, or even in the fire which followed that Elijah finally discerned the presence of God, but in the still, small whisper of a voice.

Meanwhile, at the beginning of his ministry, his calling as the Son of God being confirmed at his baptism when the Spirit of God alighted upon him as a dove, Jesus withdrew into the silence and solitude of the Judean wilderness where he fasted for forty days and nights.

And time and again during his ministry as the wandering preacher, teacher and healer – and even in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest – Jesus found a quiet place to gather himself, to still himself and to listen.

Listening is not something that always comes naturally or easily to many of us.

Listening takes practice.

Listening, interrogating the silence, paying attention not just to what you hear but to what is being said takes time and effort.

Listening makes you vulnerable.

Yet once you learn to listen, once your heart and mind and attention is no longer distracted either by the hustle and bustle of the world outside, or the inner world of your immediate cares and concerns, you begin to open yourself to the presence of the divine within and around.

In listening you become present to the sacred pulse at the heart of creation.

In listening you are drawn into the depth of things and the true source of life, love and peace.

In listening you not only hear more but discover to your joy that you are heard.

It is an insight so beautifully expressed by one of the early Church fathers, St Augustine, who said that we could not have begun to seek for God unless God had already found us.

It is an insight with deep roots in Hebrew spirituality where the Psalmist writes about the God who has searched and known him and who knows when he goes out, when he comes in, what he says and even what he thinks.

It is an insight carried into Christian piety by the Apostle Paul who said that although the best any of us can hope for in this life is a glimpse of God’s presence and purpose, we can look forward to the day when we will know it fully…………as we are fully known.

Hopefully once I get used to it, my hearing aid will improve my hearing but with background music in every shop or restaurant, and with people walking along Princes Street or the Cramond foreshore with earphones plugged in, I often fear for the art of listening.

At its best the experience of worship should nurture our capacity to listen, to listen to God, to listen to ourselves, to listen to the people and the world around us, that is, to pay attention not just to the sounds we hear but to what is being said.

And at its best the church, our church, should be a place of sanctuary, that is, a place where apart from the noise and bustle of the busy world, we listen to the sound of silence, and in the listening are drawn into the presence of Almighty God.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen