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Listening Servant Leader

This is the third in a sermon series on the four “Servant Songs” in Isaiah. The first was gentleness, the second was strength through integrity, today we’ll talk about listening and next week we’ll talk about how suffering plays into all of this.

So, when I read the "Servant Song" in Isaiah 50:4-7, there were a couple of things that jumped out at me. It is interesting that, while the servant leader is given the gift of speaking (a skilled and well-trained tongue to sustain the weary with a timely word), they are also given “ears to listen like a student.” Perhaps the ability to truly listen gives them the ability to speak comfort and hope to the weary.

Ears like a student speaks to me of one who is open and willing to learn and grow. They listen for understanding. There is also an implied focus and attention to the speaker. In Hindu, an Upaguru is the teacher that is next to you at any moment. This is not limited to a human being.

There are many other qualities that make for a good listener. They are compassionate and try to see through the eyes of the speaker. A good listener is non-judgmental and creates a safe space for confidences to be shared. They don't interrupt, don't try to fix and give the speaker freedom to be themselves. A good listener deeply cares about what someone is saying and lets them know that they are not alone. 

It might be easy to understand why listening is important between friends, or in a committed relationship. But why is it important for a leader? Mark Nepo, in his book I, asks, "Are you able to listen and receive, or are you observing and manipulating?" Leaders who don’t listen are uncaring, unfeeling tyrants and dictators. And we meet these people in our work places, our schools, our churches and our government.

Recently there was a conflict in our neighborhood about rezoning residential land close to us so that they can build a Culver’s and gas station (which are clearly not needed and simply contribute to the traffic, noise, light pollution and destruction of nature). At the town hall meeting one of the council members was blatantly not listening. He was looking anywhere other than at the person who was speaking. Clearly, he'd made up his mind about the situation and really didn’t care what was being said. There were even a few people who called him on it. This is not someone who cares about the common good, who cares about the people who elected him. I don't care if he didn't agree, he owed the people the respect of listening.

Another aspect of this passage in Isaiah is the humility that a servant leader has. To listen as a student requires the humility to admit that you don’t know it all and still have things to learn. And because the servant leader is listening to Yahweh, they are opening themselves up to ridicule and violence, but in their humbleness they stand strong with the conviction that Yahweh is at their side.

Writer Donald Dunson shared a story about living among the Ugandan people who have suffered greatly from preventable deaths of young and old alike from violence, disease, hunger, and abject poverty. Plus the pain of living without the sense of a peaceful future. Amidst all this, “there is a terrible temptation to place blame solely on others. It must be the fault of the rebels, the government, the international community for its noninvolvement, the greed of those who fail to share food and medicine, and so on."

Dunson tells the story of Archbishop John Baptist Odama, the Roman Catholic bishop of Gulu, who does not point a finger elsewhere, but takes responsibility for his part in the situation as a leader in the country. "On one occasion, while preaching at a large Confirmation mass at Awach, a sprawling camp for thousands of people displaced by war, Archbishop Odama asked all the children to stand. “Little ones, you stand up!” There were many adults present, even high-ranking military personnel, who were very curious about this unexpected turn of events. In his fatherly tone of voice he spoke directly to the youth and to them alone: “The condition in which you are growing up is wrong. You lack food, you are dressed poorly, and some of you are very sickly. You have missed your future because you are missing education. You walk in fear. I am sure when you grow up you will ask, ‘Why did this happen? Where were our elders to help us and protect us?’ I say to you: I apologize. I could have done more for your to improve your situation. Forgive me.” Then he knelt before them. 

The Archbishop had listened to their situation and instead of finding a way to point the finger at someone else, he acknowledged their pain and the miserable circumstances of their lives. Though I’m sure he worked to make life better for them, he took responsibility in stating that it wasn’t enough.  In doing so, I believe it must have challenged each person there to examine themselves and what they were doing to help the situation. 

There is one other piece to listening that I would be remiss if I did not address, and that is listening to the voice of God within each of us. Call it intuition, the still small voice, a feeling, your heart… it’s our inner guidance that opens us to hearing and knowing for ourselves and others.

William Edmonson was born in the south in 1874 and worked as a janitor for most of his life. But one day in midlife, William had a vision in which he was certain that God had planted the seed of sculpting in him as he slept. And though he’d never sculpted anything in his life, he began chipping away at discarded blocks of limestone. With no formal training and with just a railroad spike and a worn hammer, he began to unveil remarkable sculptures. In 1937 he was the first African-American artist to be given a one-person show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Because William was willing to risk following the nudgings of God, he became a leader in a somewhat different way, forging the path for other African-American artists. But we are all leaders in our homes, our communities, our workplaces and with friends. May we be the kind of leader who humbly listens to others, and listens to the Spirit.

Love & Light!

Kaye