“Listen First… Then…”
James 1:17-27, August 29thth, 2021
Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
“Listen now to this writing from the New Testament in the letter of James, chapter one, verses seventeen thru twenty-seven.”
17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.
21 Therefore 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.
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.
25 But 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.
26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.
27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
“Having heard this ancient writing with our ears, let us now listen to our hearts as we seek to grasp what we can from this ancient letter and apply it to our lives today.”
“Listen First… Then…”
Listening is an art form that a great many never grasp. It is something which I, myself, have struggled with a great deal. About eight nine years ago I was at a workshop learning the art of ‘Interim Ministry.’ There were about twenty of us in attendance; it was a two-week course in Delray Beach. We were being taught how to properly step into the role of an Interim Ministry. The first steps included getting to know the leadership and working to connect with the congregation, the faith community. In so doing we were being taught the importance of gaining an understanding of what is truly going on. Seeking to learn what are the issues and or the concerns of the church at that given time. It is crucially important to do this well… if the interim pastor was or is to be successful in aiding the community, which he or she has been called to – in their times of transition. Times of change often can be unsettling to a community. Thus, it would be the Interim Pastor’s goal to quickly get a sense of what was happening and how best to step in and lead. As I said as we begun, listening is an art form. There are lots of skills and qualities an interim pastor needs to acquire and use wisely to be successful. Listening is at the top of the list of skills needed!
So, what exactly is the art of listening all about? Hearing what someone is saying is essential of course. Yet, there are many levels of hearing. If we do not learn or at least grasp the basics we shall not be very effective in many of our relationships, which we all are striving for. Interim Ministry is just a starting point in this conversation. Life comes at us fast and thus we are always needing to readjust how we use any skill we may possess. Same goes for listening. If you are at the grocery store and someone comes to you while you are standing in the check out line to engage in a deep conversation it will be difficult to fully listen to what is being communicated to you. Perhaps, the first thing one can learn is that the person who is reaching out to you desperately needs to talk. Our challenge in such a moment will be to ascertain how we can engage in an appropriate way while seeking to get though the line, the cashier, and not hold up the very present waiting line of folks behind you. My example may seem extreme, but only if you have never met up with anyone while waiting in a line. The point is: to listen you must first find a way to be less distracted while you strive to fully hear what another person is trying to communicate to you.
While in sales and marketing for high-tech companies in the eighties, I learned the hard way how not to be a good listener. Every possible scenario you can imagine occurs when you are working with clients whether on the phone or in an office who are happy, sad, or mad at the next person they encounter! The art of listening is put to the test every time we seek to be in conversation. If you are like me or any average person seeking to communicate a given message, we must first learn how to get the other person into our conversation. That takes listening to them first and foremost. I often have found that to get someone to hear what I have to say, I will need to engage them in their conversation first. Imagine meeting with someone in their home or office to talk about any given subject and you are greeted with a loud television or radio in the background. Or the person you are meeting with keeps taking phone calls. In these situations, one may need to standup and say something like “I see you are busy perhaps we can talk another time” and prepare to leave or ask to set a new appointment. That often works, if it doesn’t there still is no sense trying to communicate with all the conflicting conversations going on. Once you have someone’s attention, then you can begin to have a conversation, each remembering to listen to the other. But if you are unable to get their full attention, well, then they simply may not wish to talk about that, or the person is saying thanks for stopping by and terminating the conversation. If this is the case, pick up your feet and be polite but go along. As Jesus is quoted as saying to his disciples, if someone does not want to listen to you, then “dust off your sandals and go to the next person or community on your list!” /Mark 6:11/
It takes two to listen, the one speaking and the one hearing. Remember, if you are the speaker, be sure you are being listened to, or terminate the conversation in what ever manner seems appropriate at the time. In contrast, if you are the listener, be sure to clear your minds of what you also want to say – and stop talking! Saying your name, your good intentions, and your advice can wait. Listening, as we have said is an art form. We cannot simply hear our scripture message today without opening our hearts to hear what the writer is trying to communicate. The author of our scripture today is not available for comment; thus, we need to work at fully grasping his message for us. Let’s go back for a moment to that Interim Pastor’s workshop I attended. There was one pastor whom I did not know, but learned he was a very successful leader of a multi-staffed mega church. Halfway through the course I was wanting to speak with him. But another pastor in the class approached him first. They sat down together, ignoring everyone around them as it was lunch time. The mega pastor was clearly listening to the other and allowed nothing to distract him. I watched from across the room for maybe ten minutes. When I realized I had missed my chance to speak to him I went off to have a bit of lunch. Both pastors had entered their conversation correctly. The first, asking for permission to have a conversation; the other, blocking all else out, listened intently. The art of listening!
The letter, our scripture lesson, this morning is attributed to James, believed to be the brother of Jesus. He earnestly speaks to those who are to hear his words, regarding the art of listening. “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” /James 1: 19 &20/ This is sound and solid advice. James is telling us to listen first, holding back what we may wish to communicate, holding back any rebuttal we may desire to give of what the other is saying. Listen first and be quick to get into the listening mode. Often this is easy to do, but not when you are being cautioned not to become angry. Clearly, James had a reason to bring this up. Whether we are on the verge of getting angry about what someone else is saying or not, the advice is still solid. If we focus on listening with our hearts wide open, with a willingness to hear the other person out, we may be able to find a more appropriate way to move through the conversation… without getting emotionally tangled up in the most useless of emotions! I am not saying anger never has a place in our lives. If I said that you would stop listening to me. But, unchecked anger, anger that perhaps is unnecessary in every situation. If you don’t like the way I dress or the way I comb my hair, well, that’s your business; and you have every right to your opinion. And I, to mine! I need not be upset or angry about your thoughts about me. Rather, life is about how we interact with one another. You respect my right to be me, and I need to respect you as you are.
Sandra Hack Polaski, is assistant professor of New Testament at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, Virginia. She gives us Christians a bit of advice to follow. “Perhaps, if we as Christians were to follow James’s precepts, we would do a lot less talking and a lot more listening.” She is of course correct; listening and then following in the teachings, the guidelines which Jesus lays out for we, his followers, will give us a better chance of implementing his instructions as we go forth seeking to do the will of God! Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm, tells us “…we are to humbly seek to understand and then put into practice the teachings we discern in our faith and in Scripture. When we do that, then we can hear the Word in a way that transforms our hearts and gets translated into the way we live our lives.” Both professor Polaski and Rev Brehm are affirming our need to become good listeners first and foremost. Then strongly suggesting that if we truly listen and hear what the lesson is, the message which Jesus has left for us, then we will be more prepared and willing to follow through with some of what he has said – if not all of what his teachings suggest. This seems to be what James, the presumed writer, is trying to do in our scripture passage this morning. He wants his listeners to truly embrace the teachings of Christ first, then with integrity begin to pass these teachings to others through our personal examples and practices. Hearing the words of Christ, the words of his disciples like Paul and James is not enough! Having listened, fully understanding what is being said, we then must take the action these teachings suggest.
Take for example, the concepts of kind heartedness which Jesus often spoke of or caring for others in their distress as James has restated. As good Christians, we all would agree these are worthy teachings which originate with Jesus. Yes, we ultimately need to follow through with these teachings. The question is: how do we do that? And are we willing to take the action necessary. We have a monthly food drive, even though we are a small congregation. Why? The answer is obvious. Even the little bit we contribute each moth, someone who is hungry will be helped. Yes! Helped a great deal, with even just one can of corn or one box of pasta. That’s kindness and caring for another all-in-one simple gesture. It is not for me or anyone else to judge how much, or if you do, or another does this. Yet, it is an example of being does of the message not just hearers! If we sincerely want God’s blessings, we need to be willing to put into action the teachings we, as Christians, aspire to!
God bless us one and all.