Peter’s Vision, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54209 [retrieved November 26, 2018]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/paullew/2413614561/.
Scripture Reading • James 1.19-27 (NIV)
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
These verses from James always challenge me – “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” I want to be a person who is quick to listen. I love the idea of living in a world where listening is a natural first response … but like so many things, it is actually doing it that gets challenging.
Listening is so important to so much of our faith … to live in relationship with God we need to listen to God … to listen to God in our prayers … listen to God in scripture … listen to God through our community … loving our neighbors calls us to actually listen to them … to hear their story … to be open to their needs.
Listening to can be one of the most meaningful gifts we could offer.
The authors of the book “Difficult Conversations” tell about a young man who was moved to tears, when he felt that people were really listening to him. They wrote:
A small group of police officers, political leaders, businesspeople, and neighborhood residents gathered to discuss a series of recent incidents between police officers and minority community members. When asked afterward whether he thought he had changed any minds, a black teenager, in tears, responded, “You don’t understand. I don’t want to change their minds. I just wanted to share my story. I didn’t want to hear that everything will be okay or to hear that it wasn’t their fault, or to have them tell me that their stories are just as terrible. I wanted to tell my story, to share my feelings. So why am I crying? Because now I know: they care enough about me to just listen” (Stone, Douglas. “Difficult Conversations,” Kindle Locations 1866-1872).
Listening can be a powerful way to show we care for someone.
- I am curious, have you ever walked away from a conversation thinking, “Wow, I felt like that person really listened to me?”
- What did that person do that helped you feel like they really heard and understood you?
- What are things people tend to do that make you feel like they aren’t listening?
In her book, “We Need To Talk: How to Have Conversations that Matter,” Celeste Headlee writes,
“The truth is that almost everyone struggles to listen well. Very few of us listen actively. That is, not just hear, but also understand, respond, and remember. The inability to do that is not character flaw so much as it is a human one. Listening does’t come naturally to our species, it seems … We are wired to talk …Scientists at Harvard recently found that talking about ourselves activates the pleasure centers in the brian. The researchers asked study participants to talk about themselves and their own opinions and to talk about other people and their opinions, all while hooked up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine. The researchers observed that parts of the mesolimbic dopamine system became active when the participants were talking about themselves. That’s the same area in the brain that lights up in response to … cocaine and sugar” (pp. 209-210).
I have to confess, often I don’t listen all that well … I’ll catch my mind wandering … or I’ll notice I am losing patience and tuning out … worrying about other stuff that is on my mind … sometimes I realize I am waiting for someone to stop talking so that I can say my thing. (When I do that, I’m not engaging with them … I’m not learning from their perspective or wrestling with their convictions … I’m not communicating that they are valuable and worthwhile.)
Sometimes it feels like really listening is hard work.
Listening can take a lot of self-control.
During this sermon series as we have been thinking about how to keep important conversations going, I have been looking at stories in Acts that help us think through what it looks like as a church to have difficult conversations with each other.
When we think about divisions, Acts is a great book to read because Acts is all about God bridging divisions. Over and over again in Acts we see people responding to the good news of Jesus and being put in these strange and challenging situations as God uses them to bring people together as Christ’s church. As the church in Acts seeks to follow God’s lead, the church has to figure out how to listen to God, and how to listen to each other … often those early Christians, find themselves listening to people they might not have ever listened to before.
One of the stories in Acts where we see people listening to God and to each other is the story of Peter and Cornelius.
In Acts 10 and 11 Peter, Cornelius, and even in the end their critics, open themselves up to being a part of what God is doing through their small steps of listening to God. Through their openness and faithfulness God brings new opportunities for the gospel to spread.
Both of these men, Cornelius and Peter, were devoutly religious. Cornelius gave alms generously and prayed constantly to God. Peter adamantly observed Jewish laws. Peter prayed too.
Cornelius was in a tough situation. He was a Roman military leader; the Centurion of the Italian Cohort. He was a “God fearer,” a person who believed in God, but since he was not Jewish by heritage, was an outsider to the religious community. No matter how pious, how devout, how many rules he kept, how much money he gave to the poor, Cornelius would never completely fit in.
Cornelius was praying at three-o’clock one day, “When suddenly a man in dazzling white clothes stood before him and told him that his prayers and his generosity have been remembered before God and that he should send to Joppa for Peter. Cornelius responded immediately and sent some of his men to find Peter.
This invitation was risky for Cornelius, his request had every reason to be refused. Cornelius was a God fearer, reverent and generous, but he was still a Gentile. A devout Jew like Peter, someone who claimed he had never let anything unclean or profane enter his mouth, would never risk uncleanliness by entering a Gentile’s house. Cornelius risked embarrassment, ridicule, and an awkward situation when he sent for Peter.
The next day in Joppa, Peter was praying on a rooftop, and he fell into a trance. Peter saw a vision of something similar to a large sheet loaded with all kinds of four-footed creatures, reptiles, and birds of the air being lowered to the ground by its four corners.
A voice said to Peter, “Get up, kill and eat.”
There must have been animals Jews were forbidden to eat on that sheet because Peter responded, “No way, Lord! I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”
Are you kidding? I am devout! I would never be caught dead eating that stuff.
The voice responded to Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Peter experienced this vision three times. And when the men Cornelius had sent found him, Peter applied his new understanding of clean and unclean and God’s work, to people and was willing to go to Cornelius’ house, something Peter might not have been willing to do before the vision.
Peter and Cornelius listened to God and to each other and God opened the church up to something new … their listening and responses to God and to each other impacted their community.
Through all of this faithful listening and obedience to the next steps God set before them, the church grew and connected with more people.
We grow in knowing and loving God through listening to God … through being attentive to God’s voice in the bible … in our prayers … and in our church.
Listening might be one of the first and most important pieces to loving our neighbors. When we listen to each other, we offer something good to each other. The world can seem so big, and we can feel so insignificant, but when we take time to really listen to the people around us, we can remind them they are worthwhile and valuable …
Christian listening is an act of faithfulness, listening can be an act of service … listening can be an act of love.