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Palm Sunday: The Art of Conversation

 
 

Pastor James Clarke’s Palm Sunday sermon, the tenth and last sermon in his series “Slow Church,” is The Art of Conversation.” The scripture is I Corinthians 11:17-26 and Luke 20:29-40. You may listen to the sermon by clicking or this link https://soundcloud.com/cedar-cross-umc/the-art-of-conversation or by reading the following text:

 

I think we all know about how the French traditionally eat meals: Several courses matched with different wines, starting with an aperitif and hors d’oeuvres and ending finally with bread and cheese…. Hours later!!

The Japanese share meals with guests in a similar way. It can be much like dim sum and last for hours. There is a slowness in these gatherings. And, in Japan, because we were speaking in Japanese, I paid keen attention. In some ways, I learned in these sorts of meals the Art of Conversation. One can be speaking in one’s own language and not know the Art of Conversation.

Coming back from Japan, I recall how ridiculous Thanksgiving seemed to me. For years my mother would complain that, as the cook, it was always hard to get everything ready at the same time. Everything is put on the table at once. The turkey, potatoes, stuffing, and everything else is passed around. Everything is piled on a single plate where it mixes together. We eat, which doesn’t really take that much time, certainly not hours. There is some conversation, but since everyone is so busy eating, not much.

Then everyone leaves the table to either take a nap, because we’re so full, or watch football. I remember my mother used to complain about that, too. The principal shared meal in our culture, and it’s finished in short order. And it seemed to me that the focus was on the food, not on conversation.

In Slow Church, Pattison and Smith lament the loss of family meals. They say that the length of meals has grown shorter, just like our attention span has shortened. Maybe about 15 minutes now, if that. John Wesley preached for over an hour!! Things changed with TV. I remember TV dinners and TV trays.

The authors mention Fred Rogers (TV’s Mr. Rogers, who was a Presbyterian pastor) who said that at family meals is where children learn the art of making conversation, but not if the TV is on! And now we have cell phones, which are really little computers. Our ability to pay attention is weakening.

As we eat faster, we do everything faster – drive, work, read. If we could sleep faster, we would. And as a result, we are losing the skill set of simply talking with each other. Case in point – political debates.

A Slow Church is a Conversational Church. Jesus gathered people around him – all people. And it was an open space. Not like the Pharisees – submerged in practices and rules.

I believe Jesus invited people to share. To be heard in a world where no one was heard. I believe one of the miracles Jesus performed was simply to pay attention to people from the heart and invite them into speech and conversation. Jesus offered a safe and open space for people to enter and to be heard and to listen and grow in grace together.

In I Corinthians, Paul admonishes the people for their abuses surrounding meals: …Each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.  What!? Kind of like family members going off to eat dinner by themselves in front of their favorite screen. Eating together was about community, sharing, caring, listening – for conversation.

Smith and Pattison say:

We are becoming less capable of civil dialogue with people who are different from us.

We can’t help but wonder if there is a correlation between the decline of family meals and our diminished public discourse.

It’s striking that this sharp decrease in sharing meals coincides with an increasingly fractured political culture where people of different perspectives refuse to even talk to one another.

Perhaps you’ve read in the news somewhere that there was a time when Democrats and Republicans in Congress had dinner once in a while. But that doesn’t happen any longer. They don’t even talk to each other!! The bitter fruits of individualism, competition and speed is not just our diminished capabilities, but they have also ignited our refusal to be in conversation.

I really think we need more political conversations and fewer debates, don’t you? Can you believe how they talk with each other? They talk AT each other. It is more important for politicians today to win than it is to share with others; talk, work together.

I listened to Donald Trump speak after winning a primary. All he seems to talk about is how he is winning and how he will win the next primary. And he belittles his opponents, calling Marco Rubio – “Little Marco”. That’s cause for a child to be sent to detention! While he is an extreme example, he is born out of our culture of beating others; not listening or sharing or conversing.

I hear so much worry about Donald Trump winning the election. I worry about it too. Trump is the symptom, not the disease. But even if he doesn’t win, we have plenty to worry about because we increasingly live in a world where people can’t or won’t even talk with each other. In a sense we are all being Trumped!

Everyone goes to their favorite website or channel where they can agree with everything; have all their prejudices validated and strengthened. We live in like-minded lifestyle enclaves and we don’t have a clue about the experiences of others. This generates resentment and hate. Can we see it? Conversation is an Art – everyone can talk, but not everyone can converse.

When I was in New Mexico, the leader of our workshop, Richard Choe, a pastor in the United Church of Canada, would always talk about the conversations he had with other pastors, with people of different backgrounds (He is Korean), and with people from different political parties in Canada.

I asked him about it, and he shared with me how he had previously worked for the World Council of Churches and that he viewed the creation of conversation as a vital part of his ministry, getting people who were different, who had different views, simply to talk with each other.

I paid more attention to the conversations I had with my family. Not the talks about business, who’s emptying the dishwasher, taking out the garbage and what our schedules are for the day, but a conversation about life, history, God, even Donald Trump. (Have you noticed recently how many conversations end up being about Trump?)

Are we allowing (not taking, but allowing) time for conversations to bloom and grow, or am I too busy? Are we living too fast? Too wrapped up in my own schedule, responsibilities, interests and needs?

I want to have at least one conversation a day with each of the members of my family. If it’s about Battleship Gallactica that’s fine. It doesn’t always have to be “serious” al-though Battleship Gallactica offers ample fodder for a conversation about religion. How can the Cylons which are machines be spiritual? And seemingly more spiritual than humans?

Conversation is listening, being open, cooperation and consensus rather than debate. In the Slow Church “debate” is a four letter word. Conversation is about acceptance and the willingness to change, about vulnerability, genuineness. It is something that has to be learned and practiced in the same way that we lose our ability to speak a foreign language if we don’t use it. We lose the ability to genuinely converse with others if conversation is not a part of our lives.

In the Church, our communication can easily devolve into talking about the business of the church. Many churches either stifle conversation with required, shared beliefs, or stress assertion and debate; their job being to go out into the world to convert others rather than listen to them.

We endeavor to be a Conversational Church and to do that we have to be a Slow Church. We can’t always plan for a conversation in the same way as we can’t always plan intimacy. We can’t be in a hurry and expect conversation. We have to create space inside ourselves and outside of ourselves for conversation to grow.

I find that if I sit around, conversations happen. If I’m always moving, they don’t. Ministry often happens in the interruptions of life, sometimes in Fred Meyer. Often if I ask my sons what they are doing with their friends, they say “hanging out”. It sounds kind of lazy, doesn’t it? Unproductive. Even irresponsible. “What about your homework?!”

But think about it. How can we nurture conversation if we don’t allow for time to hang out with others? Where are the conversations in our lives? Where are the conversations in our Church? In our classes we have great conversations. Where else? Saints and Sinners, Family Nights, Noontimers, potlucks. I love the new round tables. The shape itself invites people into conversation.

In the book, Smith and Pattison mention a Quaker practice dubbed “potluck worship” and intimate that the early church communion may have been more like a potluck than a ritual. I think we Methodists can handle that! And now we have the tables too!

Perhaps we should be asking strangers and friends to come and hang out with us at Cedar Cross. In a world full of McDonalds, Burger Kings, Taco Bells and KFCs, we need more family meals and potlucks, less personal agenda and more consensus, less screen time and more face to face time, less debate and more conversation.

And for any of that to happen, we must slow down.

Amen.

 

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