Quick to Listen
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

September 2, 2012

James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

It is famously noted that Martin Luther, one of the pillars of the Protestant Reformation, was not fond of the letter of James. He called it a “book of straw,” not having the Gospel in it. James says that “faith without works is dead.” And, “Can faith save you?” Luther worked so hard to rebuke the church of his day, which sold indulgences and preached the earning of justification and salvation by works. His steadfast opposition to these practices allowed little room for James. It is said that he was willing to give his doctor’s beret (a sign of his high position in the church and the university) to anyone able to reconcile Paul and James.

In the fights between Protestants and Catholics much trouble has been made based on Luther’s statements. Each wants to prove the other wrong and themselves right, each claiming the Bible as its warrant. Each uses part of Luther’s writings to prove that he was, or was not, a true Christian and an honest theologian.

To be fair, Luther said that there is much good in the letter. But that doesn’t feed the argument, and so is often forgotten.

One of those good parts is what we heard read this morning:

Let every [one] be quick to hear,
slow to speak, slow to anger,
for [human] anger […] does not work
the righteousness of God.

Here is something that both sides of the argument (or any argument) could use. For when we take things personally, we usually do just the opposite of what James offers. We are quick to speak, quick to anger, and we assume that God is already on our side, so anyone who disagrees must be on the bad side of God.

See also every political ad that we have seen or heard over the past several months. Quick to speak, quick to anger, and somehow falling further and further short of the righteousness of God. Unfortunately this bombardment will continue for a few more months. Listening to what passes for debate in our country, it seems that each speaker starts by assuming what the position of the other side is and refuting it.

But what happens if we began by listening instead?

Being quick to listen is difficult. If it is a topic about which I am even a little passionate, by the time you are halfway through your statement, I have already calculated my response and seeing when I can jump in with it. We are trained like verbal fencers. Each one ready to repost and cut the other to the quick.

Our reading from James offers a word of life in the midst of such trouble. Our reading begins with the understanding that generosity is of God. Love is generous. True giving is a godly act. And after the advice to be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, we are told to not merely be hearers of the Word, but doers of the Word.

So how we listen (to God and to one another) is how we receive God’s generosity of love and how we then go about living it out in the world.

Others have agreed. The theologian Paul Tillich called listening the “first duty of love.” Spanish poet Antonio Machado says “to have a good conversation, first ask a question, then listen.”

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says that what is within us is what we give to the world. If what is within us is hurting and hurtful, we will offer hurt to the world. If we are full of ourselves, we will offer selfishness. If we deceive ourselves, we offer deceit to the world.

If we have opened ourselves to the generous love of God, if we accept that we too are forgiven, if we have found our place in the story of God’s amazing and mixed up people, then what we can offer is a listening ear, a kind word, a loving presence.

When we receive the love that welcomes us, we can welcome others.

Not that we presume to think that we get it right all the time. Or most of the time. Personally, I have enough work trying for “some of the time.” Mother Theresa said, “Keep in mind that our community is not composed of those who are already saints, but of those who are trying to become saints. Therefore let us be extremely patient with each other’s faults and failures.”

I think it goes further than even this. Our God is a God who hears. When the slaves cried out in Egypt, God heard their cries and remembered the covenant and saved them. When Hagar and Ishmael cried out in the wilderness, God sheltered them and saved them.

But hearing is not enough. God became human, the word became flesh, Immanuel, in Jesus. It was not enough to hear our human cries, God became like us:

  • to know what human pain is,
  • to know what it is like to lose a loved one (Lazarus),
  • to agonize over choices of whether to avoid pain or to be obedient,
  • to wrestle with the capacity for violence and to show restraint,
  • to suffer and die.

God’s love hears our cries not simply from on high, but as one who has entered our suffering and has known it from the inside.

If we wish to follow Jesus, let us do as God did in him: Let us be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. And so let us draw closer to one another and to the heart of God, the mind of Christ, the call of the Spirit.

Thanks be to God.