Listen Quickly, Speak Slowly, Seek the Lord
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, June 7, 2020
Readings: James 2:17-26 and Acts 2:42-47
I was participating in one of those Zoom meetings not long ago, where we had a very specific item on the agenda to deal with. It was with an outside group, not with our church, and for the first 20 minutes, everyone carried on what I call chitter-chatter. They just talked, and talked, in kind of a meaningless way about nothing. It was a nice way to introduce oneself to people, but it took on the absurd, to the point that we barely got to the item on the agenda.
Now, I love small talk, I really do. I do it myself. I thrive on it. It’s a way to engage in a meaningful and a social way, but sometimes people feel the need to speak when they have absolutely nothing to say. It has been described in an article that I read recently, as “word fatigue”. We suffer from word fatigue, not only in face to face conversations, many of which have diminished because of isolation, but in meetings, telephone calls, words that we see on the screen in Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, we’re bombarded by words. In fact, a very recent scholarly study suggested – and this was before, COVID-19 – that on average, we listen to 20,000-30,000 words a day, or are exposed to them in some way. Think of it, 30,000 words a day. Often, we fall into the abyss of feeling that we need to speak, to write, to Tweet, to respond, simply because we have an inner compulsion to add more words to the discussion.
I must say, this past Tuesday, I was moved by the deliberate silence, where we said nothing in the face of the tragedies that occurred in the United States. That pause was a powerful statement. Likewise, I think we feel compelled to Tweet or to email quickly, as if there’s an urgency to the task, and maybe the social networks themselves force us into this compulsion to respond quickly.
I’ve even found myself on Facebook - and I'm sure you've done this too – liking something, only to reflect upon it later and realise that it was a profoundly sad moment and you should have expressed your concern or your emotion in another way. We sometimes just quickly respond rather than taking the time to reflect. That is why our passage today from the Book of James, Chapter One, verse 19, is prophetic for our age. James says that we should listen quickly, we should speak slowly, and we should anger slowly. The more I thought about those words, I realised that there is a wisdom from the Spirit in all of this.
James, who is called by some, the brother of Jesus, others have thought it a pseudonym for another leader within the church in Jerusalem around AD 50. This James was writing to a Christian congregation in Jerusalem who were followers of Jesus Christ, giving them concrete advice as to how they should live. He was, of course, rooted, as a Jew, in the teachings of the Torah and of the prophets. You can see that coming out in a lot of what he had to say. In this epistle, he didn’t talk a lot about Jesus, but it was assumed that Jesus and the Spirit were guiding him. At the very beginning of the book it said that he is a servant of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ. He sets the tone.
Likewise, Fred Craddock, the great American preacher who died a while ago, said that at the core of what James is writing, is his belief, which he states early on, that God is the source of every good gift. That everything arises from God, and that everything that he is talking about, comes from that conviction. James is writing to the church in Jerusalem, but he is having to deal with some very concrete issues. Many members of the early church were poor, and there was this sense that some who were more affluent, were looking down on those who were poor, and judging them by their appearance, and their poverty.
Likewise, there were moral issues that they were struggling with. How do you live a moral and a good life as a new Christian community? He emphasised the great Old Testament notion that one should look after widows and orphans, the most vulnerable of all people. He had a passion to make sure that there was a sense of justice within the community of faith. So, in that context, he had the words of James, I remind you: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.”
Why is this relevant today, as well as in the biblical times? Well, the advice to be quick, to listen, is critical. One of the things that was not happening within the earliest Christian community, was the listening part of our faith. People were in a hurry to speak. We don’t know the context that James was addressing specifically, but we do know that there was an issue. He even says, “beware of the tongue,” because once you have said something, you can't take it back. The wisdom of what those early Christians said matters.
It also matters within our culture. It’s not only an application for the early Christian church, it is a wise sentiment for all of us. He, of course, was informed by his knowledge of the Old Testament, and in Ecclesiastes 5:1 and 2, it says, “Be quick to listen, and then speak deliberately.” Likewise, in Psalm 34, it said that one should bridle the tongue, because if one doesn’t bridle the tongue, then one cannot live a truly religious life. So, James knew where all this coming was from. He knew that listening and being slow to speak, was a virtue. What amazes me though, is that in our day and age, there are people who are realising the importance of this, and there have been, for a number of years. I'm not sure if you're aware of this, but there is a thing called, The Listening Project, a series of quotes encouraging us to listen to one another.
Through this Listening Project, I’ve discerned that there are a number of wise things that were said by people, and I want to share three of them, by virtue of the fact that these individuals have some credibility, but also because I think they're echoing what James said, and are therefore relevant. The great Karl Menninger wrote this: “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.”
Paul Tillich, the great Christian theologian, said: “The first duty of love is to listen.” And the great Jane Goodall, said this – and this is very relevant today: “Change happens by listening, and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right.”
Wise words from three very wise individuals. Listening is magnetic. Listening is love. Listening helps us deal with those with whom we do not agree.
At the core of this is the need to listen first, to God. We are often quick to speak about God and what we think we know about God, which often reveals what we don’t know about God. Sometimes we are slow to listen when we should be quick to listen.
Rev. Lori has done a wonderful course on this notion of listening to God (Hearing God). I’ve always thought that this was a profound thing for any church to embrace, but also for us as individuals to embrace. Maybe a pause in our lives at a time when there is anger and uncertainty, to discern and to say, “Lord, what is your will and your purpose for us?” Then simply to listen, would create a much better world and a much more faithful response. It is important to listen.
Clearly, James was listening to those within his own congregation and society, who were feeling marginalised. He was listening to the poor, who knew that they were being judged by their outward appearance. He knew about the concerns within the community, about righteousness and about justice, something that was dear to his heart. He listened to what people were saying. Maybe if we listened a little bit more to those with grievances or concerns, and took them seriously, maybe if we did that, our actions would be more righteous and just. I think James had something profound to say.
There has always been a tension between what is known as the zeitgeist, or the spirit of the age, and the Spirit of the Lord. The two are not always synonymous. So, we listen to the spirit of the age and we head towards a collision course with truth and justice and righteousness, rather than listening first to the Spirit of God. Some wise words from James: “Be quick to listen but be slow to speak.” Be slow to speak.
It’s hard, isn't it? If you're asking any profession at all how difficult it is to be slow to speak, you're talking to clergy. You're probably talking to politicians and those who are used to using words to convey ideas. You want to jump in right away with your opinion. But often those words are spoken from a place that is not rooted in wisdom. When we’re too quick to speak, we do so from a place of anger or resentment or defensiveness.
Abraham Lincoln – I seem to have been quoting him a lot recently – said, “If you're going to write a letter in anger, sleep on it for two nights before you send it.” He understood the danger of emotional speech.
James knew that: “Be slow to anger and be slow to speak that word of anger.” This is needed. It does not mean the complicity of silence. It does not mean that when you have something to say, you shouldn’t say it. On the contrary, you should. A spoken word in season, a spoken word that comes from wisdom and thought and is deliberate, that can be a blessing, and is needed. Sometimes we’ve been too slow to speak in the face of injustices rather than the other way around. But again, it should be, to use the phrase of Ecclesiastes, “deliberate.” It’s been thought about, been prayed about, considered from a deep place.
James not only talks about speech. In Chapter Two, he also talks about acting upon those words. The words are not enough, creeds are not enough, declarations of faith are not enough. Sometimes we need to bring our lives in accordance with the Word, and the Word, of course, is the Word of God. To bring our lives into conformity with what we espouse as truth.
James had a problem, there were people who thought that if they had the right faith, the right doctrine, then their deeds did not matter. In that famous line he says, “Faith without deeds is dead.” What’s the point of having all the right creeds and all the right words, if you don’t act upon it? Jesus said something similar. He said, “It is not he that sayeth Lord, it is he that doeth the Father’s will.”
There have been some, including Martin Luther, who have tried to set James up against Paul, because Paul talks about justification by faith alone, and this was a major theme in writing to the Romans and Greeks, particularly, to the world around the Mediterranean. He understood, rightly so, that it is by faith that we are justified in the eyes of God. James is probably writing, as some have speculated, even before Paul’s epistles were well-known. He is writing to a Jewish community, a fledgling community in Jerusalem, but a powerful one. He is concerned that having faith, as important as it is, must in some way translate into deeds – deeds of kindness and justice, goodness and truth. Who should disagree with him? But at times we do. We think that words are enough even if we’ve contemplated those words, we think that they by themselves, even based on a faithful foundation, are enough, even if we don’t act upon them.
I read a wonderful little poem by Dorothy Lunn, which I’ve shared before, I believe in a Bible study group. She put it this way, with a touch of sarcasm, but with a very profound message:
I was hungry and you formed a humanities club and you discussed my hunger. Thank you. I was in prison and you crept off quietly to your chapel in the cellar to pray for my release. Thank you. I was naked and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance. Thank you. I was sick and you knelt and thanked God for your own health. Thank you. I was homeless and you preached to me of the spiritual shelter of the love of God. Thank you. I was lonely and you left me alone to go and pray for me. Thank you.
You seem so holy, so close to God, but I'm still hungry and lonely and cold. So where have your prayers gone? What have you done? What does it profit to page through the book of prayers when the rest of the world is crying for help?
An indictment on us all. Sometimes we’re quick to pray, quick to turn to our faith, but slow to respond to the needs around us. There is no sense within the Christian faith, or in Scriptures, that this is the way we should live. Our prayers and our devotions are rooted to our righteous action. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Prayer and righteous action, these two go hand in hand.”
What inspired me in thinking about this was what happened with the early church. I was amazed in Acts 2, after we look at the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples, and the ability to go into the streets and speak with xenolalia to all the different cultures. Peter’s great sermon that we looked at last week at Pentecost. The more I read it, the more I realised what a great sermon that was. After this a new community was created. The Holy Spirit continued to work amongst the people. We’re told by Luke, the writer of the Book of Acts, that a characteristic of that early Christian community was that they were taught fellowship. They broke bread and they prayed. They shared accordingly with those who were in need.
You see, teaching, fellowship, communion, prayer and the concern for those in need, were all together in the community of the earliest believers. This is what the Holy Spirit produces in the hearts and the lives of those who are open and listening to the Spirit.
We are told that people were added to them in numbers. Well, of course they were, because their deeds and their words went together. Their lives and their prayers were rooted in Christ. They were open to the power of the Spirit and they were quick to listen to that Spirit, slow to speak, slow to anger, open to God.
It seems to me this is a great model for us all, don’t you think? Amen.