New energy is buzzing, new doors are opening, new people are appearing, new opportunities to connect abound! At Foundry this September, we are mobilizing and activating our spiritual lives through study, service, intentional community, fellowship, and worship. Using the no-nonsense teaching from the letter of James, we’ll think together about what an activated life of faith involves, including ways you can wade out, dive in, and go deep into life and ministry at Foundry. We’re on the move! Join us on the journeythis September on the journey!
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, September 2, 2018, the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. “Activate” series.
Text: James 1:17-27
We sat on the floor, facing opposite directions, with our shoulders touching. From this position with our partner (someone we didn’t know all that well) we took turns responding to the same question. This exercise was part of a month-long yoga training intensive and the goal was to focus our attention on how we listen. Our bodies, feelings, and point of visual focus were all factors to explore. All the participants in the training were hearing persons; the exercise would be done differently with persons who are deaf. But for all of us, whether hearing or deaf, the fact is that listening—truly receiving what another person is communicating—takes practice. It takes awareness of ourselves and intentional focus on the person we are trying to listen to.
I’m coming off a week of another kind of listening exercise. I was privileged to be invited into an experience with United Methodists from across the country and world. Siblings from exotic places like Idaho and New Jersey mixed with others from the Philippines and Cote D’Ivoire with one primary goal: listening to each other.
The United Methodist Church is a global church and is rapidly growing in places like Congo. It is easy to stereotype our siblings in other countries and regions and lump them together into a faceless collection of issues or perspectives. What a gift it was to experience the beautiful, alternative, diverse truth—to hear the scriptures read in such distinct languages and voices, to sit next to a young adult from Congo, see her face and listen to her story as a woman in leadership, to draw near to a brother from Mozambique and listen to his story as a father, student, and pastor. What a gift to at least try to listen.
At the beginning, the American contingent was reminded that our culture doesn’t teach us how to listen. American culture breeds a tendency to invade and dominate the listening space (a learned behavior growing from our colonialist roots?) and to assume we know things before ever really stopping to listen. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, but for many folks from the U.S. the most difficult conversations were among ourselves—and the discomfort centered around the dynamics of race and gender and power. An African American woman voiced the discomfort and tension of being told that she should hesitate to speak up, that she should listen, in the conversations with international folks. Her point is that she’s been taught her whole life to be quiet, that her voice was not welcome or valued. And once again she is being told to hold her tongue? It’s not that she didn’t understand the reasons; but it was important to name the complicated intersections of culture, race, gender, and power. That kind of self-awareness and willingness to give voice to the inner tensions and to be vulnerable—that’s what we were there to practice. And practice we did.
The epistle of James is all about how to practice faith. And our passage today from the first chapter gets right to it. “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” In the radically polarized moment in which we live, this admonition is not just difficult, it can feel impossible. Listening well is never easy, but right now, everything trains and tempts us to be quick to argue and attack, not quick to listen. Trigger words and assumptions, stereotypes and self-righteousness, weariness and worry—all of these things get in the way of listening… And while things are really ramped up in this season of our history, it’s likely part of that American tendency I mentioned before. An African colleague shared that her experience of many Americans is that we start talking and responding before the conversation partner has even finished expressing what they are trying to communicate. She connected this to our need to take action and our struggle to be “still.” We are not socialized to be still, to wait, to be quick to listen. We are socialized to be quick to speak or quick to “fix” or quick to explain—whether with a partner, friend, colleague, or adversary.
The writer of James understands that listening is the starting point for what we do—or as is written, for “worthwhile religion.” Religion is what we do. It is the practice of our spirituality, the way our faith gets enacted. And what we listen to, who we listen to, whether we truly listen—all of these things have a direct impact on what we do or whether we do anything at all. The passage says, “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has power to save your souls…be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” As Eugene Peterson paraphrases: “Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Acton what you hear!... Anyone who sets himself up as ‘religious’ by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God…is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.” (James 22, 26-27) A slightly gentler shorthand of the teaching might be, “humbly listen to the good news and let it take root within your heart; let the good news of Gods love grow into concrete acts of love and care for others.”
Working with this teaching as we kick off this month’s sermon series, “Activate,” I’ve been thinking about the way that we can hear something—even experience something—but not be moved to any kind of concrete response as a result. The image that keeps coming up for me is the story Jesus tells of the seed that falls on different kinds of soil. Some seed falls on hard soil and doesn’t take root. It just sits there or gets blown away by the wind or eaten up by the birds. Such seed doesn’t get “activated,” it doesn’t connect with the earth and water in a way that help it grow. This, I think, may be what James is getting at.
Listening, really listening, is the first thing we can do to “activate” the word within. And I’m not talking about one moment that passed through you without really landing. We might get very riled up at a rally or in response to a sermon but, after the moment passes, we are literally unmoved. What is it that helps the word “land” and become “implanted” in your heart so that you’re activated to do something? There are lots of motivators—self-interest, love, fear, pain, anger… What voices are able to cut through this stuff to help you act in a way that is good? Who do you listen to? Whose voice has taught you and formed you so that it continues to motivate your actions and priorities?
For me, listening to another real person, hearing their story and entering into a relationship with them is one of the most powerful activators. What will get me to show up at an event when I am worn out and would rather stay home? A person I care about is going to be there or tells me it’s important or asks me to come. What is it that inspires me to give my money? Relationships of love and trust that help me know my resources are supporting something or someone good. What convinces me to do something hard and scary and uncomfortable? The promise of friends who will be in it with me and the greater promise of the God I trust that I am participating in God’s work of mending and love in this beautiful broken world.
Relationship, an activated faith, growth in love begins with listening with an open heart and open mind in a way that will move you to action. And that takes practice. It takes humility. It takes a willingness to deal with your own emotional responses and a willingness to be vulnerable. Without those things, the word won’t land, the stories will pass through and leave you untouched, unmoved. And that is like looking in a mirror and seeing the life that you’re invited to and then walking away and leaving that life behind—forgetting that you’d ever seen what was possible.
I pray that the stories shared by my African American and Latina colleagues of being silenced and dismissed and overlooked will not simply “pass through” or get left behind, that the stories I heard from colleagues from other countries and cultures will have a lasting impact on my life, that all these stories will change me and strengthen me for the journey. I continue to hold close to my heart the story of a Nigerian sister who, because of her public solidarity with LGBTQ persons on the floor of General Conference, lost her husband, her appointment, and her home; was humiliated in front of her annual conference and had her ministry undermined publicly. Even still, she continues to fight for justice for herself and for the oppressed. She could easily emigrate to the U.S. but chooses to stay in Nigeria and remain in the struggle for women’s rights, for equity, justice, and care for all people. God help me if I receive such a witness and remain unmoved.
So two things that I invite you to think about and practice.
First, think about how you listen. Practice listening. Listen to those who are difficult to listen to. Listen to the real voices of others. Speak to ask questions that help you listen more fully. Be willing to hear things that make you uncomfortable, sad, or angry. Manage your own emotional response. When it is your turn to speak, do so with humility born of love and self-awareness. Create space within your heart to receive a life-changing word.
Second, cultivate relationships that will help activate your faith—in all the places you connect, including here at Foundry through classes, small groups, and fellowship. Listen with real intention to one another and to the opportunities to participate in changing the world. And let that listening move you to do something. Your action may be internal—a shift of perspective or attitude. The thing you do may be engagement in a group or project. You might also be moved to give money toward a program or ministry.
Let the word of God’s love and mercy and justice really take root and grow. Listen…and then do something!