On July 11, we had a congregational conversation about whether or not to invite a third party in to help us work through some conflict we’ve been having in the church. Because one of the issues we, as a congregation, have been concerned about is how we communicate with each other, on July 11th, I preached on the Scripture text that was assigned for today. The focus of the sermon was James’ line: “Be quick to listen, but slow to speak and slow to anger.” Remember that sermon? At the time I said we’d revisit the text on August 29th, the date when the passage was scheduled to be read. Today is August 29th!
So, how are we doing? In the last seven weeks, have we grown quicker to listen, slower to speak, and slower to anger? I don’t know about you, but I’ve still got some work to do. How about our community? Are we quicker to listen, slower to speak and slower to anger than we were last month?
Words have power, don’t they? The ancient Hebrews believed that once a word was spoken, it created a reality that couldn’t be undone. That’s what we learn from the very beginning of our Scriptures: In beginning, God creates with a word: “Let there be light.” And there was light. (Advertisement: Next week, the first Sunday in the Season of Creation, we’ll revisit the creation story in Genesis 1. Also during the service, we’ll incorporate some of the artwork of our featured artist next month, Sandy Herrault. Be sure to tune in.)
Words have power to create realities. “Marriage equality passes.” “Separate but equal.” “You are welcome in this place.” “I love you.” “US troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by August 31st.” “Evictions will resume.” “Welcome to the world, Baby Girl!”
Words have power to create realities. Every word we speak or write sets things in motion. Twelfth century Jewish mystic Hillel said, “In this moment, good and evil are perfectly balanced. Your next action will tip the scale.” If in this moment, good and evil are perfectly balanced, which way will our words tip the scale?
In his letter, James has a lot to say about words. Here’s an example from ch. 3. The message is a little subtle. No worries. I’ll explain it all in a minute.
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
(Okay. Here comes the really subtle part. Listen closely!)
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless God, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not be so.
The tongue as “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Maybe I overstated the subtlety of the passage. 🙂 Words create realities. What realites are we creating with our words?
January 17, 1971, John Francis witnessed a crude oil spill of nearly a half-million gallons into the waters near the Golden Gate bridge. As John drove his car “over the Golden Gate, he felt some responsibility for the mess washing up onto the shore.” After reflecting on the spill for a year, John gave up the use of motorized vehicles. When John shared his new commitment with his community, they argued with him: giving up the use of motorized vehicles wasn’t going to help the environment. John says that, “Then, to end the almost constant bickering and arguments with my friends…I stopped speaking.” (7)
For 17 years, John didn’t utter a word. For 22 years, he walked the planet. In his memoir, Planet Walker, John reflects on silence, not so much as the absence of words, but as an invitation to listen more deeply. “Most of my adult life,” John writes, “I have not been listening fully,” (46). He goes on: “Giving myself permission not to speak, not to attack some idea or position, also gives me permission to listen fully. Giving myself this permission gives the speaker permission to speak fully their idea or position without fear of rebuttal in a way that I could not have imagined.” (46)
In the midst of conflicts–whether in a church, a family, a nation, or a circle of friends–it’s always the words we remember, isn’t it? Things that were said, the way they were said. I wonder at the end of the day, if it’s not our tongues that are the problem so much as our ears? Maybe if we focused more on listen quickly, our speech and anger would slow down on their own. Maybe. Maybe.
And why wouldn’t we want to listen more fully to each other? Look at the people around you–do you see these beautiful creatures of God? Each one, created in the image and likeness of God. Each one, full of experiences and ideas and playfulness and love and pain and joy and stories. Why wouldn’t we want to open our ears–and our hearts–to these beloved children of God? Do you see that every single person we meet is a gift to us from God? Yes. Even the grumpy ones. 🙂 In a poem about poetry, Elizabeth Alexander asks, “Are we not of interest to each other?” Are we not of interest to each other? Are we not of interest to each other?
With apologies to both James and Paul, I leave you with these words: Quick listening, slow speaking, and slow anger, abide, but the greatest of these is listening. Listening. Listen!
Silence is held.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2021