Practice deep listening to change, be changed, says Harper


The Rev. Lynn Casteel Harper, minister of older adults at the Riverside Church in New York City, delivers her sermon “The Gift of Wisdom” on Sunday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

“The disciples, on two occasions, witnessed the feeding of multitudes and collected baskets full of leftovers. They had every evidence to trust Jesus and to distrust Harod and the temple leaders, but they still did not get it,” said the Rev. Lynn Casteel Harper. She preached at the 9 a.m. Wednesday service of worship in the Amphitheater. Her sermon title was “The Challenge of Understanding.” The Scripture text was Mark 8:14-21.

The disciples could only think of literal bread; there was not enough bread to feed everyone. “They were so dense and spiritually obtuse,” she said. “How could they not get it? I want to shake them and ask, ‘Why is it so hard to see, to hear, to perceive?’ ”

Harper recalled her own spiritual density. “I still doubt that blessings will be around the corner when they have been around the corner. I doubt love will show up when love has always shown up. I have knowledge, but not understanding.”

One night a coworker asked Harper for money to pay the highway tolls to get home. Harper thought she had just forgotten the cash and gave her three dollars. “She had not forgotten the money; she did not have it, period. I had not connected the dots. Her husband was out of work, day care for the children was expensive, she had been out of work. I did not perceive and did not ask if she needed money for food, for gas to get to and from work, to pay the tolls in the morning.”

She continued, “I understood the literal content of her request, but not the deeper meaning. Like the disciples, I missed the larger point. I was too focused on the toll that I missed the bigger need. It is unjust that some have more than they need and others not enough.”

Albert Einstein said, “any fool can know, the point is to understand.” Harper said there is a yawning gap between knowing and understanding. “We know about many things but we don’t understand how to change and be changed.”

The disciples knew there were 12 baskets of bread left over from the first feeding and seven baskets of bread from the second. “They passed the pop quiz, but failed the test,” she said. “They missed the greater lesson. They could recall the information but did not understand what it meant.”

There are people who understand loyalty and kindness better than others, even though their cognitive ability is less. People can feel the emotion in music even if they can’t speak about it. “My grandfather was still trying to help others with their walkers, or pick someone up off the floor when he could not articulate, but understood, what was needed to help,” Harper said.

She told the congregation, “We can know cognitive facts but understanding is knowing what needs to be done and let it transform our daily practices. Last June we knew what we saw in the video — kneeling for nine minutes on someone’s neck, crying for mama. We knew it was wrong. As white, American Christians we need to understand the wanton violence and subtle forms of racism against Black Americans. We need to listen deeply and with humility, to change and be changed.”

St. Anselm said faith is seeking understanding, not knowledge. Faith seeks to understand the relationship with God in the individual and in the whole social order. “We have our blind spots, especially to our original sin of racism. To seek understanding, to move toward life-giving, is our high calling. Understanding is the deep knowledge roped in our soul, in God and in community,” she said to the congregation.

The disciples passed the pop quiz but failed the test. But Jesus did not kick them out of school. 

“Jesus never demoted them or dropped them; he was willing to keep working with them,” Harper said. “That action gives me hope that Jesus will stick with us, too. We have to keep practicing our spiritual ABCs, keep trying, keep failing, keep trying harder. The Spirit of wisdom abides, especially when we don’t understand.”  

The Rev. Mary Lee Talbot presided. Welling Hall, retired Plowshares Professor of Peace Studies at Earlham College, read the Scripture. For the prelude, Joshua Stafford, who holds the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist and is director of sacred music, played “Träumerei,” by Robert Schumann. Members of the Motet Choir sang “God be in My Head,” with music by David Evan Thomas and words from the Sarum Primer. The postlude was “Now Thank We All Our God,” with music by Johann Sebastian Bach, arranged by Virgil Fox. The Edmund R. Robb-Walter C. Shaw Endowment and the Randell-Hall Memorial Chaplaincy provide support for this weeks services and chaplain.

Tags : Mark 8:14-21morning worshipRev. Lynn Casteel Harperthe challenge of understandingWeek Eight

The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.