Who Went First? How Can We Forgive?

James 1:19-25

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. 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. 

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 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. 

A sermon preached at the First Church UCC, Middletown, CT on September 19, 2021

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

We were moving, from Pennsylvania to South Florida.  My mother and father were in the front, my brother and I in the back.  Driving to Florida wasn’t quite what we’d experience today – for our trip was well before I 95.  We spent hours on two-lane highways, staring out the windows at an unbelievable world of live oaks, Spanish moss, men plowing their fields with mules… It was enormously stressful for my parents; after almost six months of unpaid unemployment, they were moving to a new world, with a new job.  If this didn’t work out, they didn’t know what would happen next.  And in the back seat, a pre-teen and a pre-schooler.  We loved each other, sure, but peace was never in the cards.

He hit me!  She’s on my side of the car!  Barriers of pillows were easily breached.  He ate my snacks; I ate his.  I was jealous because he got away with murder while I was expected to take it.  And, did I mention how boring it was?  I think by the fourth day of it all, my parents would have been happy to leave us at that most recent gas station.

He did it; no, she did it…. for twenty-four hours of driving…

Who went first?  Because, you know, if I could prove that my brother had started it, then I could claim to be innocent.  

I wasn’t the first to make that claim.  You remember the story of Adam and Eve; it’s a lovely parable describing the nature of sin.  It went something like this:  Adam and Eve live in a beautiful garden where there is no shame.  One day, God visits, and has to hunt for Adam because he’s hiding.  “Why are you hiding from me?” God asks.  “I was hiding because I was naked and ashamed.” “Where did you get the idea that you should be ashamed of being naked?”  “Well, the woman you gave me, she told me; and then the woman says, but I heard it from the snake…  “  It’s never my fault, you notice…. whoever is speaking blames someone else…. the woman, the snake, and best of all, blames God for creating the woman.  

I wasn’t the first, or the last, to blame someone else for what I’d done, to proclaim, loudly, that their bad deeds made it necessary for me to respond, or even to say that since others have done something that’s wrong, it’s ok for me to do something wrong as well.

The thing is, when we go down that path, we’re so focused on justifying our own actions, focused on ourselves, that we’ll never see the harm we’re doing others.  In the letter of James, it’s written:  be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.  Live out what you say.  I can guarantee that, in the back of that car heading for Florida, I never once thought to listen to my brother, never once wondered how hard it was for a four-year old to spend hour after hour stuck in a car, unable to run or jump.

We laugh – it’s not in the nature of most bored teens to listen thoughtfully to a similarly bored, and annoying, little brother.  Think about it, though.  How often do we similarly fail to listen, and thus make it worse?

I’ve been reading William Willimon’s take on being a bishop in the United Methodist Church; he was appointed to a struggling Conference in Alabama, and tasked with making the changes that were needed.  Everyone wanted things to get better, but some got really angry at him for what was happening.  And he got angry with them – until he sat down with some of the unhappiest, and listened.  He wrote that he realized as they spoke that they weren’t really angry at the changes, but rather they were mourning the losses of things they had loved…  in much the same way, we might note that there’s no longer a Bee and Missionary Society, know that the decision was right and needed, and still mourn what it had meant for so many years.

It was Willimon’s listening which led to understanding, and his understanding of where others were opened up the possibility of stronger community.

There’s a reason why the author of James puts listening first – be quick to listen, but sl-o-w to respond.  

That’s hard, and in this contentious age, it’s gotten harder.  We’re quick to be snarky, even quicker to assume someone is putting us down; we’re harder set in our opinions, readier to speak with an edge. 

That’s not who we want to be; it’s not who God has made us to be.  We have looked at what we’ve seen and heard among ourselves and in our world, and so we determined some time ago to create a tool to help us continue to live in the way we are called.  Under the able leadership of Jim Silver, God’s gift to this congregation, a Behavioral Covenant team has put together a document which will work, for us, as a guide. 

Our Behavioral Covenant doesn’t name each and every opportunity we might face; it’s intended to be open, to offer guidelines, not rigid “you musts” or “never do this”.  It’s not a rule book, made to govern us, but a route book, a road map, to help us figure out how to relate in tough times.

It will remind us to be quick to listen, but slow to speak.  It will help us put aside the sharp elbows of our world, help us strengthen our community with a common respect and love, and bring us closer to our God.

May it always be so.  


© 2021, Virginia H. Child