Listen, Act, Serve

August 30, 2009

James 1:19-27

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. 26If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion 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.

 

            It is late summer and our gardens’ growing seasons are coming to an end.  But Sonya and I are still getting some tomatoes and lettuce from our backyard and you know what that means: BLT’s.  So one day this week we were enjoying our BLT’s and we decided to not clean up right away, I would clean it up the next day, and the grease from the bacon sat in a frying pan and solidified.  Sonya instructed me to scrape out the grease into an old can and dispose of it appropriately.  But rather than scrape it out, I got the idea that I would turn the burner on and then I could just dump it out of the pan.  And our trash was getting full so rather than mess around and dump it into an old can, I would just dump it into the trash and then take out the trash so it wouldn’t stink up the house…bad idea.

            Sonya left Thursday evening for Indiana and I was on kitchen clean-up duty.  So I turned on the burner under the grease and I decided to check my email while it warmed up.  About 10 minutes later I was reminded of the flame under the grease as the smell of burning bacon and smoke filled the air of our home.  Of course I ran out to the kitchen and turned off the flame and went on with my original plans, skipping the step of putting the grease in a can and dumping it straight into the trash can.  Hot bacon grease in a plastic garbage can with a plastic garbage bag…I’m a stinking genius sometimes.  Not only did I melt the bag and some of the contents of the garbage, I splattered myself with grease, burning myself a number of times.

            I will say this now while Sonya is gone, but I really should have listened to her.  Had I just scraped out the grease into an old can, everything would have been fine.  Oh yes, I heard what she said.  I remember it quite clearly to this day.  But it is one thing to hear something and it is another thing altogether to actually do it.

            Our scripture for today instructs us on how to listen, respond, and to serve.  I hope to show you today how these things are related to one another, linked together.  And hopefully we will see that we are called to be doers of the word, serving God and serving others.

            Verse 19 instructs us to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.  I think we are all aware that you learn a lot more by listening than you do by talking.  Now I don’t want to say that you don’t learn anything by talking.  Just the opposite.  Some people will claim that you really don’t know a subject until you can teach it to someone else.  Being able to understand something well enough to put it into your own words is a sure way to show that you know something.

            And obviously, we can’t all be listeners.  Someone needs to talk.  But we all know how frustrating it can be when one person dominates a conversation.  And this includes times like a small group setting or Sunday school.  When one person dominates a “discussion” and nobody else has the opportunity to share from their own experiences, then we miss the opportunity for more learning.

            It was recently shared with me that in a certain church in Alaska, one of the service adventure participants introduced a method to their Sunday school class called the talking feather.  Note: it wasn’t the feather that actually did the talking, but the person holding the feather.  This feather was passed around the group and each person got an opportunity to share or to pass on the feather.  By doing this, people that would have otherwise not shared had the opportunity to be heard.  The Sunday school class was practicing a method that helped them to be quick to listen and slow to speak.

            It has been my experience that people process their thoughts differently.  When I first get an idea I like to run it through my head a few times, word my question or observation as best as I can, and then present it to the group.  Then there is the other way.  As a person once told me, “I don’t really think about things until they are half-way out of my mouth.”  And believe me, it showed!  He was often taking things back that came out the wrong way that might have been offensive or that simply came out the wrong way.

            It is people like that person that process their thoughts out loud that tend to dominate a conversation or a small group discussion.  Now I don’t mean to lift up one kind of thought process over another, but just to bring it to your attention that if you are one of those people that process verbally, that you might be keeping other people from having the opportunity to share their thoughts.  Now if you think that your thoughts are the only ones that matter, we have a different issue to address.  We will talk about that in the next humility sermon.  Be quick to listen and slow to speak; even slower to anger.

            The context of our scripture for this morning involves listening in the church.  It is about hearing the word of God, listening for the way God speaks through the Bible, through other people, even through little children.  This advice is helpful in many areas of life: In the workplace, in the marketplace, the home, with the family, and so on.  And this being quick to listen and slow to speak is even a good way to share with other people your understanding of the kingdom of God.

            When Jesus meets the woman at the well in John 4, he doesn’t just start preaching to her.  Sure, he is Jesus, he already knows everything.  But he starts by asking her questions about herself, making observations, and eventually moves into some heavy stuff.  Jesus is quick to listen, and slow to speak.  Not a bad person for us to model our lives after, now is he?

But we are to be more than just hearers of the word and hearer of words.  Verse 22 instructs us to be doers of the word.  I would add to that by saying that we are not to be just hearers, speakers, or readers of the word.  We all know people that are excellent at reciting Bible passages.  In any situation, they seem to be able to whip out a verse or two that is applicable.  But reading all the right books, listening to all of the right sermons, and memorizing all the right verses of the Bible is only helpful if you then put those things into action.  What is standing behind those words?

            If I could have you open up your wallets now and tell me how much is in them, you could come up with a number.  Maybe you have $17 in cash and credit cards with a credit line of up to $10,000.  Or if you look in the offering baskets for this morning you would see a handful of green bills and a fair number of checks made out to the church.

            Now if you added up all of the cash in your wallets and in the offering, all of the checks, and all of the credit cards that you have on you right now, what would the value of these items be?  Thousands of dollars?  Tens of thousands perhaps?  No, I would guess that they would come to a couple pennies worth.

            I checked at Staples and you can buy a ream of paper, which is 500 sheets, for about $5.00.  That comes to 1 cent per sheet of paper.  And you can print a large number of checks, dollar bills, or even 100 dollar bills on a single sheet of paper.  I have no idea how much a piece of plastic costs, but it can’t be too much.

            The only reason that a dollar bill, a check, or a credit card are worth much is because the US Treasury holds tons of gold in the Federal Reserve Bank in New York and in Fort Knox.  Our credit cards and checks are only good because they represent a promised amount of cash and our cash is only good because it is backed up by gold.  (Don’t ask why gold is valuable.)

            So when our scripture talks about being doers and not just hearers of the word, it is like our monetary system.  It isn’t saying that hearing, speaking, or reading the word is worthless, but that it is worth less, as in of lesser value.  Hearing the word is great, but its greatest value is in being backed up by doing the word.

I was reading about a Baptist pastor named Peter Miller, from the small town of Ephrata Pennsylvania who lived during the American Revolution. And there was another man who lived there named Michael Wittman, an evil-minded sort who did all that he could to oppose and humiliate the pastor. He made his life miserable. One day Michael Wittman was arrested for treason and sentenced to die. At first, Peter Miller thought, “Well, thank goodness the Lord took care of that guy. I didn’t know how much more I could take!” But then he remembered the part of the Bible from Matthew 5 which said “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And he was like, “Oops! I guess I blew that one, Lord.” And he decided to travel seventy miles on foot to Philadelphia to plead for the life of the traitor. He approached General George Washington with the request.

And Washington said, “No, Peter. I cannot grant you the life of your friend.”

The old preacher said, “My friend? This guy’s not my friend. “He’s the bitterest enemy I have!”

“Washington said, “What? You’ve walked seventy miles to save the life of an enemy? That puts things in a different light. I’ll grant your pardon.” And he did.  Peter Miller took Michael Wittman back home to Ephrata, no longer an enemy, but a friend.

I know that scripture from Matthew chapter 5.  I know that I am to love my enemies and pray for those that persecute me.  But how do I live it out?  How do I become a doer of the word, and not just a hearer?  How do I back up what I have heard with actions?

I’ll be the first to admit, it isn’t easy.  I love to read books.  I love to gain knowledge by seeing what other people have said about Jesus, reading from their experiences, listening to them tell stories.  I even like a good theological debate every now and then.  But when it comes down to living out what I believe, I struggle sometimes.  Just a few examples from this week: I went out to lunch the other day with a friend and the waitress forgot to charge us for a drink.  Should I let her know about the mistake or just walk out like nothing ever happened?  Sonya and I bought a birthday present for her sister the other day and had I kept the receipt and claimed that it was something that I was purchasing for my own home it would have been tax deductible.  Should I try to take that off my taxes?  I got a request for financial support in the mail from a seminary friend that is going to Thailand for a three year mission term.  We have a baby on the way, we need to do some work to prepare for him/her and everything takes money.  Should I send money to help my friends in mission or spend it on fixing up the nursery?  I walk by people begging for money on the street corner so that I can buy a cup of coffee in the morning.  Should I give them the money and skip the coffee or maybe just make some at home cheaper?  I know the answer to each of these questions because I am a hearer of the word.  Being a doer of the word is the tough part.

In verses 26-27 James writes, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.  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.”  If we were to just read that passage we might think that James is telling us to watch what we say; to not gossip, lie, slander, or speak offensively.  But that isn’t what James is saying here.  No, we will look at chapter three in a couple of weeks and that is what he says there, but in this verse James is referring back to verse 19 when he talks about being quick to listen and slow to speak and later when he talks about being a doer of the word.

In his commentary on the book of James, William Barclay has this to say, “What James is saying is, ‘The finest ritual and the finest liturgy you can offer to God is service of the poor and personal purity.’”  So to paraphrase what James might be saying, I would say “If anyone thinks that they are religious, they must be slow to speak and quick to listen.  Otherwise your “religion” is worthless.  And if you want a religion that is true and pure, you need to be caring for those that can’t care for themselves and getting your life straight with God.”

This brings to mind a passage from Amos chapter 5:21-24 “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies.  Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.  Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.  Away with the noise of your songs!  I will not listen to the music of your harps.  But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

And you might write that off as some crazy Old Testament passage that no longer applies to those of us living in the 21st century under the grace of Jesus Christ.  But Jesus said something similar to this as well.  In Matthew 5 Jesus tells his hearers that if they are making a sacrifice to the Lord and have placed it on the altar only to remember that there is a brother or a sister that has something against them, that they are to first go and make things right with that person before they continue with their sacrifice.

You see, God wants us to get right with him.  And because we cannot live a perfect life, God sent the means by which we could be forgiven for our mistakes.  We call that means Jesus.  But there is more to getting right with God than simply asking for forgiveness from God.  We also need to make sure we get right with others.  Our relationship with other people is so important that we are told to leave that sacrifice on the altar and that God despises offerings made when there is an injustice between us and another.

James lifts out widows and orphans as people that suffer unjustly.  In the society in which James lives women and children relied upon a man to provide them with food, shelter, and clothes.  We have some examples of women in the workplace in the Bible, such as Lydia, but for the most part women did not work out of the home.  Therefore, if a woman’s husband died, who was to take care of her?

What the scriptures seem to be suggesting is that it is our duty as Christians to help those that can’t help themselves.  Not just those that are too lazy to help themselves or that don’t really want to be helped, but to help those that are physically, mentally, or restricted by their age.  We call this Christian service.  This is why we go to places like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Myanmar after a tsunami, and in our own communities when neighbors are in need.

This past July I attended our conference’s annual meeting in Harrisonburg and we all sat around tables so that we could have discussions.  There was a discussion that was initiated after a presentation by Virginia Mennonite Missions.  They asked our tables to talk about how our churches are living out our call to be missional in our communities.  One church was represented by two people at our table and they shared that their church has appointed a part-time pastor who is designated as a pastor to the community.  His responsibility is to visit the elderly, to go to see people from the community when they go into the hospital, and to just build relationships with people in their community and to understand their needs.

Everyone at our table loved that idea.  We thought that it was great that their church would empower an individual for this job and that he was intentionally caring for those that did not go to church and helping those that could not help themselves.  But the two from that church said that this model had a big problem.  When they named a pastor to the community, the rest of the church stopped being a pastor to the community.  When they named a pastor to the community, the lay people stopped going into the nursing homes and the hospitals.  When they named a pastor to the community, the lay people stopped visiting the poor and the oppressed.  When they named a pastor to the community the lay people kept more to themselves and they kept more within their church and stopped caring for the people of their community.  When the role of pastor to the community became a professional role, the church stopped being the church.

Religion that is pure and undefiled is to care for the widows, the orphans, to care for those that can’t care for themselves.  Religion that is pure and undefiled is to keep yourself unstained by the world.  We are to get right with the Lord, and we are to get right with those in need.

We are all here today to hear and experience God, to worship the living God that dwells among us.  We need to hear from God to know what God wants from us as his servants.  As we discern that I would like to challenge you to act upon it.  Share the Good News, spend time with the elderly, give to those in need, help those that can’t help themselves.  I challenge you this week to show someone how well you know your God.  Show them not by quoting scripture, but by living it out.  Be doers of the word.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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