Listening Like a Child

“Listening Like a Child”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Hingham, Massachusetts
July 9, 2017


Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Kids can be cruel sometimes. And they can be frustratingly slow to pick up on the most important of lessons. But they can also be the very best listeners, probably because they start with a clean slate and are more open to new wisdom than we are as adults.

So, the very same kids who do the old put down routines on the playground wind up being the kindest and most gentle and helpful ones as well. It’s part of being young.

He who smelt it dealt it!

He who denied it supplied it!

You jerk!

I’m rubber and you’re glue! Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.

And on it goes.

Until someone needs help and then some of the very same kids who are tormenting each other are the ones who are there for those who need them. Over time, hopefully, our values take shape and we become who we are meant to be.

How do the best of us wind up being good people? What’s the trick?

I think it has to do with listening. To whom are we listening as we grow into adulthood, and beyond into older adulthood? What voices wind up being our most important guides in life?

I had lunch with an old and dear friend yesterday and we were realizing that our childhood friends who got into trouble often had parents who were either absent or abusive. Not all of them, but many of them. They had the wrong voices – or no voices at all — guiding them.

My parents are anything but perfect, but they spoke to me in consistently faithful and loving voices and I benefitted from that. Except…

My dad liked to tell jokes, and so, when I was young, I told jokes, too. His jokes. It wasn’t until I was in about 4th or 5th grade that I realized that my dad’s Depression and World War II era humor wasn’t a hit with my 1970’s classmates. Sexist, racist, xenophobic, and homophobic humor wasn’t really in any more. Neither was imitating drunk people (which was really big n the 40’s). But that was the voice I had been listening to and I had to start listening to other voices instead.

In our reading from Matthew for this morning, Jesus encourages his followers to listen to him. He starts be comparing them to children in a negative way. He says they’re like kids calling nonsense back and forth to one another. He quotes a proverb, saying that his contemporaries neither dance nor mourn when prompted to do so.

You know how there are certain songs that come on the radio, and even if you don’t think they’re great music, you can’t help but move to them? La Bamba, I Saw Her Standing There, Stayin’ Alive, Billy Jean, Love Shack. You know what I mean.

Jesus laments the fact that his brothers and sisters in the faith are not moving to God’s music, whether it’s joyful or somber. And he’s calling them out on it.

What’s wrong with you? he’s asking in so many words. Can’t you feel the beat?

He also points out their hypocrisy. You criticized John the Baptist for being too much of an ascetic, for being too abstinent, for not eating and drinking like others. And you criticize me, Jesus says, for eating with sinners and for drinking wine. Which is it? You can’t have it both ways. Are you just trying to avoid listening to either one of us?

But then, Jesus changes his tone. He leaves the criticism behind and thanks God for revealing wisdom not to the wise and intelligent but to those he calls infants. In other words, the wisdom of God, the wisdom that Jesus reveals, is not only accessible to the intellectually superior, it’s available to all of us, smart or dumb, wise or foolish. And we’re all a little bit of both, right?

If we are willing to listen closely, any of us can get it.

At the end of the passage, Jesus says, Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Seems kind of paradoxical (even contradictory), doesn’t it? How can a yoke be easy? How can a burden be light?

As you probably know, a yoke is one of those wooden frames that fit over an ox’s neck so the ox can pull the plow. A burden is by definition a heavy load.

So, what is Jesus trying to say and how can we, even if we are youngsters in the faith, understand what he is saying to us?

I think it all becomes easier to understand if we remember that these images are all about moving forward. When an ox pulls a plow, it’s moving forward. When we carry a burden, we put one foot in front of the other and we make our way toward our goal.

But there are yokes and there are yokes. There are burdens and there are burdens. Most of the time, we get to decide which ones we want to pull and to carry forward through our lives. Sometime, we don’t get that choice and our burdens are given to us against our will.

We can pull the plows and carry the burdens that our parents or our society tells us to pull and carry, or we can listen to Jesus, whose loads are vastly different from the ones we thought we needed to bear.

What’s the difference?

Our culture tells us that we need to drag the plow of success and carry the burden of material wealth. There are also voices of hate out there, telling us to trust no one and just look out for ourselves, to carry only our own burdens and let our neighbors carry theirs.

Jesus tells us something very different. His yoke is easy because God is helping to pull the plow. His burden is light because, when we love others, love comes back to us and lessens our load.

Some of you know that Tracy and I were in Guatemala recently with our HCC senior high youth. Early on in our trip, we were playing soccer on a dirt field in a poor village and one of our young women tore her pants. It wasn’t a little tear. Her whole seat was ripped open. She was embarrassed and needed help.

We asked one of the women in the village if she or anyone she knew had a needle and tread and she said there was actually a tailor right there in the middle of the pueblo. We went to the tailor and he repaired her pants in about twenty minutes, using an old sewing machine, run by a foot pedal. His wife lent our girl some trousers to use in the mean time.

When he was done, we asked how much we owed and he said nothing. There he was, a desperately poor tailor in a poor village. He knew we had pockets full of cash. And he decided to offer his services for free. We gave him some money, but left his shop knowing we had been blessed.

Which voice was he listening to? Surely not the voices we hear every day about getting what we earn, what we deserve. That tailor was not a child, but he had the same openness to God’s love that children seem to have.

Even though kids are not always so great at listening, when they do listen, they do so with an open heart, without that dismissive, jaded attitude that we acquire as we get older. Skepticism is a good thing because it helps us to see the world around us more clearly, but it ceases to be a good thing when it stops us from being able to believe in something impossibly beautiful, like the Jesus’ message of faith.

And so I invite you to allow your childlike heart to lead you toward a place of trust and openness, a place of faith. Listen, listen, listen to the loving, hopeful, impractical voice of Jesus, and dance to the song that he sings to each of us.