So, recently (more so in the last couple of months than ever before), a number of people (a few who are repeat listeners) have come to me—anywhere between immediately after worship and the days to weeks following—and said: “Pastor, I loved your sermon.” After my ego has deflated a little bit (I mean what pastor doesn’t enjoy hearing that?), wondering what caught/kept their attention I’ll respond: “What part did you like?” “Well, I really liked the part when you said…” And right here, as the person begins to recall specific details—particular words heard—is exactly where the previous compliment begins to fall apart. Not always but more times than I would like, with certainty a parishioner will retrieve words I know I did not say—perhaps even something I would never say from a pulpit (or any other place for that matter). “Well, I really liked the part when you said…God helps those who help themselves…” Lights and sirens go off in my head like one might see on a movie, right before the factory explodes. I cry out within myself: “No you didn’t, because I never said that!” but my lips respond: “Ok…” Like typing a word or phrase into a computer’s search engine, immediately my mind begins to search—an old VCR rewinding a VHS tape at supersonic speed—for what it was that I said that could’ve been misconstrued. As I rack my brains trying to remember my exact words spoken, I wonder how this person got from A--what I actually said—to B--what they heard. Maybe—for whatever reason—they heard a few words from one sentence, temporarily zoned out, and then a couple more words a minute later caught their attention again. In some cases, it’s as if they were watching the cooking channel, but when they later go to share what they learned, it, in turn, sounds like something from FOX NEWS. The spoken word somehow has little-to-nothing in common with the words heard. Moved by what they are recalling, deep in their heart they believe I said this; yet the words that have been bouncing around in their mind quite possibly came from some other single or amalgamation of sources. Who knows?
Aside from the immediate reaction of wanting to re-deliver my sermon to them right then and there, such responses from parishioners cause me to question whether everyone—not just confirmands—should be required to take sermon notes. I’ve attended a few churches where small, half-size paper is made available for those who want to follow along by taking notes. Sometimes they include sentences with strategic blanks to be filled in—reinforcing one’s motivation to pay full-attention. Yet, at least half of the time such paper is used otherwise: for cartooning, writing out one’s grocery list, or in the fabrication of flying objects or cute crafts. Whether one tries to combat it or not, we cannot ignore or deny our struggle/inability to listen amidst our multi-functioning, short-attention span society. No matter whether its cause is our abundance of electronics, overload of information, or ever-changing interests—we all, from young to old and everyone in between, falter in our listening. One could argue we hear only what we want to hear. I know this is too-often the case for me within spousal disagreements. My wife and I will begin arguing over something trivial, e.g. me not taking out the trash like I said I would. Though I’m not proud of it, occasionally I may zone out during our argument—only to reengage when a certain word or phrase is said. “What?! I’m smelly and make you sick?!” Had I been listening, I would have heard what she actually said, which was: “The trash is smelly” and “its strong odor makes me sick…” While this is a poor analogy to what happens in hindsight of preaching, hopefully it gets the point across: Listening is crucial in hearing God’s Word spoken and living it out in one’s life.
Instead of casting judgment on those distracted or struggling to follow along, what if we looked at the time following worship—anywhere between immediately afterwards and the days to weeks following—as an opportunity to discuss what we’ve heard with others. Not just in the sermon, but also in the Confession and Forgiveness, the hymns sung, the prayers, the Words of Institution, etc. “Hey So-and-so, did you hear what was said during…” or “What did you think of how the prayers mentioned…I never noticed that before.” Evangelism is not just done in asking someone if they have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. Asking others what they heard, and, in turn, having them recall it in their own words leading into a discussion is a form of evangelizing. It causes us to reflect—both on the things we liked and disagree with—question where we stand with regards to it, and consider how it shapes our faith and lives lived in love and service for others. Don’t be afraid to ask others the question—perhaps they have been waiting for someone to discuss it with them. Ask your spouse, your kids, your friends, someone who wouldn’t normally interact with. Bring someone with you to church; just so you can ask him or her afterwards on the way home what they heard. You may be surprised by what others hear. Teaching, Jesus says to the crowd around him: “Listen! […] Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Mark 4:3a, 9) “What did you hear?”