September 25 | A listening heart


The video above includes the full service, except for the time for sharing.

Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained through One License with license A-727859. Copyrights for songs given after the sermon text.


Sermon: A Listening Heart
Texts: 1 Kings 3:1-10; Luke 11:33-36
Speaker: Joel Miller  

With our friends from CDC here today as part of the “Sacred Listening” process, I’d like to reflect on the gift of listening.  In a slightly roundabout way, through this story of King Solomon.  

The story in 1 Kings 3 contains a question just about everybody fantasizes about some time in life.  If you were granted one wish, what would it be?  Just thinking about it for a few seconds can get your heart rate up.  We have a birthday in our house this week, today is Ila’s 10th birthday, so that question shows up in its diminished and much more limited form: What present would you like?  Riches and fame we cannot promise, but some cool cash, a month of Disney +, and some fun outings are all within our power.   

When King Solomon sleeps and dreams at Gibeon and hears the voice of Yahweh say, “Ask, what shall I give you?” he had only recently become the third king of Israel.  After coming out of slavery in Egypt, entering the Promised Land, and living under a tribal confederacy for a couple hundred years, Saul had been selected as the first king – chosen in part because he was a head taller than other men, exceedingly handsome, and from a wealthy family.  David followed Saul, a surprise choice since he wasn’t related to Saul, and since he was the youngest of eight sturdy brothers, a shepherd boy, a kind of un-Saul.  David reigned for 40 years.

The Israelite tradition up to that point had been highly skeptical of the institution of kingship – which makes sense if your experience of kingship had been slavery under Pharaoh.  Toward the end of David’s reign the dark side of power is evident as David’s sons maneuver themselves to be the next in line for the throne, various officials aligning themselves with the different factions.  Soon before his death David promises Solomon’s mother Bathsheba, whom he had slept with while she was married to another man, Uriah, who David had killed so he could marry her – David assures her that her son would succeed him as king.  With three of his older brothers already dead, a first order of business for Solomon involved killing off his aspiring half-brother Adonijah and his allies.  1 Kings 2 ends by saying, “So the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon.”

The Bible may be boring for certain stretches, but this is not one of them.

And there’s more…Solomon had gained the kingdom, but there was more to be done.  Chapter 3 opens with another swift move from Solomon, this time in the area of foreign policy.  He makes an alliance with the current Pharaoh of Egypt….OK…. by marrying his daughter, becoming, in effect, Pharaoh’s son-in-law.  Later he will set out on a building program, constructing his own palace, a temple complex, and a wall around the capital city of Jerusalem.

Before the temple was built the Israelites would offer sacrifices at various shrines throughout their land, often called “high places” in the Old Testament, and one day Solomon makes a trip about five miles up the road from Jerusalem, to Gibeon, which is, we are told, the principal high place.  He must have had quite a crew go with him because he offers up a thousand burnt offerings – an extravagant display of wealth.

With the sun going down and the smoke still rising, the newly appointed King Solomon drifts asleep for the night, and has a dream.  In the dream, Yahweh, the god to whom these thousand offerings are directed, the god of his enslaved ancestors, speaks to him and says, “Ask, what should I give you?”  Solomon is a powerful man, politically savvy, charged with aspiration, making an international name for himself.  The world is at his fingertips, and a voice comes to him and asks, “So what do you really want, Solomon?”  Ask.

This point in the story has all kinds of parallels with Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness.  There it’s the devil who poses the question, offering similar kinds of possibilities, with Jesus confronting head on the inner impulses and desires that drive the human heart.  So what do you want?  Do you want wealth and security?  Turn these stones into bread.  Do you want fame?  Pull a stunt and throw yourself down from this height and God will save you.  Do you want power?  All these kingdoms of the earth could be yours.  Think of the possibilities.

What do you…want?

It’s not a question that gets posed to us very often, or ever.

Or, it’s the question that gets posed to us frequently and always.  The question every advertisement tries to answer for us.  This is what you want!  The question hovering just beneath the hum of life, best accessed away from the buzz of answers already provided and paths already paved.

For Solomon, the question comes during dream time, when the mind lets down its guard from daytime performance and sifts and sorts and arranges connections into new patterns.  The perfect time for the Divine to find an opening and pose a question that could lead down a fresh path.   

What does that deeper part of you, the part that knows itself to be connected to all other beings, the part that exists to participate in the healing and wholing of creation…what does it want? 

This is where Solomon’s dream takes him.  He remembers his father David, and recognizes he’s only in the position he’s in now because of being David’s son.  He calls himself “only a little child,” barely knowing up from down.  Apparently imposter syndrome has been around for at least 3000 years.  The mighty Solomon is only a child in king’s clothing.  Now responsible for the wellbeing of his people who are, in his words, “numerous” and “great.”  Considering all this, the sleeping Solomon has his request, which the NRSV translates this way: “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern your great people?”

If you know this story, you probably know it as the story of Solomon asking for wisdom, and it does mention wisdom in following verses.  Solomon’s name will later come to be associated with much of the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible.

But it’s those two little words in Solomon’s initial request that helps clarify what is meant by Wisdom.  The phrase an “understanding mind” makes it sound more intellectual than the Hebrew implies.  The actual Hebrew is that lovely phrase we used for the sermon title, a “listening heart.”  “Heart” was understood to be the seat of the intellect, emotion/feeling, and spiritual receptivity.

So we’ve finally come around to the theme of listening, the singular answer to a question about want, desire, and need: “Give your servant a listening heart.”

If you’ve ever been truly listened to, you know how much of a gift this is.  Runners talk about the afterburn effect where the body keeps burning calories well after the run has ended.  In other words, after a good run the effects of the run keep working their way through your body.  I think the afterburn effect works for good conversations too.  Not just a conversation where you said what you wanted to say, but the kind of conversation where you said something you didn’t even know you had in you because the other person was listening to you that deeply.  The effects keep working their way through your body and mind, through your heart.  As if the listener has unlocked some reserve within you you couldn’t access otherwise.  

The Mennonite author David Augsburger once wrote that “Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people can’t tell the difference.”  Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people can’t tell the difference.

Maybe there isn’t a difference.     

And if you’ve been on the listening side of this love, you know that having a listening heart doesn’t come about by waving a magic wand, even if that’s the one thing you wish for.  It takes practice, it takes intentionality.  Sometimes it takes giving up any wishes you might have for where the conversation might go and how you might want it to turn out.  What you want to get out of the other person.  Because even the other person doesn’t know what’s deeper within them that needs to be heard.  Having a listening heart involves having faith that there is indeed something sacred residing within the other.  And it is that patient faith in the something yet to be expressed that can enable the one being listened to to first hear it themselves.

I’m not making any claims about whether Solomon actually lived out this kind of listening heart.  I tend to stick with the thread of the biblical tradition that is weary of any kind of concentrated power.  His reign ends in much the same way it began, with posturing and infighting and a north/south rift that led to a northern kingdom of Israel and a southern kingdom of Judah, each with their own kings.

As a society we don’t seem to be in a great place as far as developing a collective listening heart.  Social media platforms have done an amazing job of boosting people’s ability to speak.  They do less of an amazing job of boosting people’s ability to listen.  The algorithms and reward systems built into the design favor passionate speech.  There’s not a lot of incentives I’m aware of for passionate listening.

Listening is slow work.  It’s hard work.  It doesn’t scale well.  It’s not easily captured in metrics.

And yet, it is striking that when the king, the upholder of the hierarchy, was visited in a time when his guard was down, what he most wished for was a listening heart.  What Jesus says in Luke 11 about the eye is just as applicable to the ear.  To slightly paraphrase: “Your ear is the lamp of your body.  If you ear is healthy, your whole body is full of light.  But if it is unhealthy, your body is full of darkness.”

Sacred listening is slow, hard, counter-cultural, enlightening, holy work.

I wonder how we can foster spaces and opportunities that make it more likely for good listening to happen.  I think it has something to do with being in situations where we’re able to let down our guard, where everyone is on stable enough ground that we become more open to the potentially destabilizing act of listening deeply to another person.  Protecting and defending and trying to win are not conducive to good listening, although sometimes those postures are indeed necessary.

I also wonder if a vital place to practice sacred listening is outside the human sphere altogether.  If we can turn our attention toward the birds, the trees, the clouds, the hills and rivers, the vast cosmos…if we can become comfortable in our own silence and set aside our tendency to fill the void with our own words, we may learn something.  We may even, in keeping with David Augsburger’s suggestion, experience listening as love.

It’s a risky time to engage in listening.  It means we have to let our guard down.  It means our favorite and most comforting neurological pathways may be rewired.  I’m thankful our conference has named the value of sacred listening and created a process for this happen.  I’m hopeful we’ll all find ways to practice this wherever we may be.


Jesus Calls Us – Voices Together #30. Text: John L. Bell (Scotland) and Graham Maule (Scotland).  Music: Isle of Lewis traditional (Scotland); arr. John L. Bell. © 1989 WGRG, Iona Community (admin. GIA Publications, Inc.).  All rights reserved.  Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859.  All rights reserved.

Siyahamba (We Are Marching)Voices Together #793. Text: Xhosa; South African traditional; English trans. Gracia Grindal (USA), 1984; Music: South African traditional; arr. Freedom Is Coming, 1984. Text and Music: © 1984 Peace of Music Publishing AB (admin. Walton Music Corp., a division of GIA Publications, Inc.).  All rights reserved.  Podcast/Streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859.  All rights reserved. 

Be Thou My VisionVoices Together #549.  Text: Irish traditional, “Rob tu mo bhoile, a Comdi cride,” ca. 8th c.; trans. Mary Elizabeth Byrne (Ireland), Ériu, Vol. 2, 1905, alt.; Music: Irish traditional, Old Irish Folk Music and Songs, 1909; harm. Martin Shaw (England), Enlarged Songs of Praise, 1931, alt., harm.  Public domain.

Sent Forth by God’s BlessingVoices Together #812. Text: Omer Westendorf (USA), People’s Mass Book, 1964, alt., © 1964 World Library Publications, Inc.  All rights reserved.  Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859.  All rights reserved.  Music: Welsh traditional; harm. anon. Public domain.