Did you ever step into a situation, thinking that you knew what was going on and then realize that you have not only put your foot in your mouth, but made the situation worse? If not, then I think there is some coffee ready in the fellowship hall, this sermon is for the rest of us. When I was younger I had something to say about everything and I used the time other people were talking to formulate my next words. I didn’t listen. One night I was up in my apartment with some friends after church and the topic of vegetarianism came up. Now I opened my mouth with a couple of quips, a few snide remarks and angrily ended with the remark that vegetarianism was a great fad for rich suburban white people who could spend all that money on getting the right proteins from vegetables, but us poor folk from the hood could use a little less judgment if we went with what we could afford. Sitting right next to me was a guy who I hadn’t met before, but I had heard he lived in deep southwest Philly in a very rough neighborhood. I figured that I must have scored some points with him since he knew what was up with living on what you could get. Since this sermon is on being slow to speak you can guess where this is going. What I had succeeded in doing was seriously antagonizing one of the few strict vegans from that neck of the woods, and he proceeded to tell me exactly how flawed my reasoning was, that I was an idiot for opening my mouth from complete ignorance and that I could take my idiot opinion and lodge it in a location upon which the sun shineth not. I would have done better if I had absorbed the information in today’s scripture from James:
19You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. 22But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
James writes todays passage as a lesson from experience. James had been the leader of the Jerusalem church during a huge conflict over whether Gentiles had to fully obey Jewish Law before they could be considered saved, and tempers flared. The book of Acts recalls a loud confrontation between Peter and Paul, and a council that was held to settle this issue in Jerusalem by the Apostles. I have to wonder if James is trying to share how that conflict could have gone a bit smoother, with less hard feelings and didn’t alienate Jewish practitioners of the faith. Within a hundred years the ethnically Jewish part of the church was almost non-existent, so maybe James has something here to help us get through our own disagreements without those same feelings of ill-will and anger that plague the church so very often. Begin by training yourself to actually listen to what others have to say, especially if you disagree with them. Quite often we will automatically refuse to listen to disagreement, but if we do we can learn quite a bit. To give an example, I make it a habit of listening to my friends who are atheists speak about the church and actually try to absorb what they say and see if I can wrestle with some of the hard questions they have. Sometimes what they have to say makes me angry and I own that as something from me and not from them. What I have learned is that a vast majority of atheists don’t necessarily disbelieve in God, but disbelieve a very specific God. An atheist in Saudi Arabia doesn’t disbelieve in Jesus, they don’t believe in Allah, Jesus isn’t on their radar. What I have learned from my atheist friends, some of whom were on track to be pastors, is that the way we live as the church has an impact on how people view the God we claim to serve. Even though our actions do not save us, we cannot say that they are unimportant, because they may be what draws people in or pushes them away from following God.
Being quick to listen and slow to speak means a shift in the way we see ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. We cannot think that our voice is the only one that bears any kind of truth, we must humbly submit to the voice of others in order to refine our understanding of God. Our first instinct when we hear an opposing point of view is to get angry and lash out at the other person’s “ignorance”. This serves mainly to cover up the fact of our ignorance. We humans grasp for any kind of control we can have, but the truth is that even the most powerful human beings ever to exist had very little control over their lives, especially the ending of those lives. Since so much is beyond our ability to control we react from fight or flight when we feel the little tiny bit we think we have is being challenged. This anger at loss of control not only does not produce righteousness, but puts us in direct opposition to the actions of Christ in the world. Seriously look at the history of the church to see what kind of horrors arise when power becomes the focus of the church. Even in recent times we see prominent leaders being corrupted because they didn’t recognize their own tendencies, faults, and failures. When we think we have all the answers, it sets us up to stop depending on God for our strength, our provision, and our direction. Having all the answers closes us off to the words of the gospel when they come in to challenge us with the reality of our own limitations. When we act without listening first, anger, sordidness, and the rank growth of wickedness follow all too easily and fill our lives with unrighteous debris.
There is an old joke about churches and necessary change: “How many meetings does it take to change a light bulb? CHANGE??!!” There is a human tendency to prefer being stuck in something familiar to venturing into the unknown. This manifests itself in many ways, but I want us to start paying attention to what is going on internally so that we can be more faithful to the calls God places on us. In this next piece I am going to talk about ways that I have experienced spiritual inertia in the hopes that you can recognize some of the same things in yourself. My first experience with spiritual inertia is that of being very emotionally involved in a topic to the point that it distorted my ability to hear clearly from God or others, and I could not act on anything other than what I was emotionally over-invested in. To overcome that inertia I had to trust that God would make things right even if I thought the decision might be wrong. Another type of spiritual inertia is when we know exactly what God is calling us to do and say we need to keep listening because we want God to change His mind. This is what James is specifically addressing in today’s text: disobedience through inaction. This is probably the type of disobedience I have most encountered in the Friend’s Church and frankly myself. Last year, the Yearly Meeting had some listening groups around the contentious issue of homosexuality. These groups were not called to accomplish anything other than listening to each other, and the Elders of the Yearly Meeting asked me if I would lead one of the groups. Now my mental response was “So you are inviting me to juggle flaming chainsaws on a tightrope over a shark pool.” What my mouth said was: “I’ll need to pray about that.” A week later I made the mistake of actually praying about the situation and God was pretty clear about what His desire was. He wanted me to do it. OK…Let me wait a week and see if God changes His mind. He didn’t. Let me ask some other people to pray to see if they hear something different. Nope. I eventually agreed and led one of the groups, but my initial response was not one of obedience and I had to ask God to forgive me. Following Christ and obeying God is not easy. We don’t have an easy to follow list of do’s and don’ts that constrain us, but have a law of liberty that says we have to look beyond our actions to our motivations. This is so much harder because we have to constantly keep a look at ourselves and ask ourselves the very hard why questions, even about the things we do that are acceptable and normal. Is the way I drive motivated by the love of God and neighbor? Are my media choices motivated by the love God and neighbor? Are what I eat and drink motivated by the love of God and Neighbor? Are the words I am speaking about another person motivated by love of God and neighbor? The mirror of the law of liberty is not always very flattering and sometimes shows us that even though we are doing the correct actions we do them for the wrong reasons! Is it any wonder that we may want to forget what we see when we look at the truth of our brokenness and not want to admit how desperately we need God to change our hearts? There is something that happens when we look at ourselves, warts and all, and ask God to help us better reflect His image. We are transformed. We begin to act from purer motivations, and it does require sticking to it after many failures. Even after 35 years of following Christ I still fail and God has to pick me back up, brush me off, kiss the owies, and I have to accept His help and forgiveness and take that next step towards living from the motivations of Loving the LORD my God with all my heart, mind and strength and loving my neighbor as myself. God’s desire is for us to be refined into purer and greater reflections of the love that motivated Him to set aside his authority and power, live as a slave, and be obedient to death, even death on a cross. So let us truly listen to each other and God, not allowing our immediate reaction to bubble over and cause strife, but also when we have heard and understand what is required of us, let us act. The story I opened up with happened 16 years ago and because I stopped and listened, and because my friend Matt didn’t write me off for my big mouth, God was able to teach us how to love each other well. Both of us are married with kids, and maintain contact despite the fact that we are on opposite ends of the country. When we listen with a commitment to act in love wonderful things happen and relationships are healed and forged. During our time of open worship allow yourself to be carried away by that purifying fire of love. Pray that God burns away all within that is not operating from the motivation of love for Him and our global and local neighbors. After 5 minutes of silence I will bring the microphone to any that feel led to speak, and in that silence weigh the words you feel given and ask that every word spoken in our communion together would flow from the love of Jesus within us. Let us listen together ready to act on the loving revelation of Jesus.