Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
“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.” James 1:19-20
Does anyone remember the classic folktale Henny Penny? It involves a chicken, Henny Penny, who was busy going about her business. She had her head down scratching under a tree. An acorn fell and struck her. Rather than looking up and around, rather than investigating the situation, rather than discussing her theory with others, Henny Penny cries out, “The Sky is falling! I must go and tell the king.”
Henny Penny informs and excites Cocky Locky. Cocky Locky informs and enflames Ducky Lucky. Ducky Lucky informs and fires up Goosey Loosey. And Goosey Loosey informs and enrages Turkey Lurkey. The sky is falling! Catastrophe born of a single acorn! Hysteria and havoc heightened. A false emergency ensues. Panic and pressure lead to unthoughtful actions and uncritical judgments. And waiting at the end of the story is ol’ conniving Foxy Loxy—a predatory schemer who is always looking to feed on someone else’s fear and misguided fury. The sky is falling! Unfounded distress caused their eventual demise.
Last week we discussed the importance of slowing down and looking up. We can become so proficient and efficient in the tasks of life that we miss wonder and amazement; we miss artistry and awe: we miss the allure and enchantment of God’s handiwork all around us. For as the author of James writes, “every good and perfect gift comes from above.” Don’t get bogged down in the wisdom of the world—ego and ambition, pleasure and personal fulfillment. When left unchecked this will only lead to envy and avidity, greed and gluttony, venom and violence.
This is why the author of this letter appropriates the ethics of the Hebrew prophets. He or she appeals to the teachings of Jesus. Life is fundamentally covenantal. A covenant with God brings us into a relationship with one another. This is why we must privilege community and collaboration; we must promote conflict resolution and relationship building. Hence, the author writes, “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger—for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”
Don’t be like Henny Penny and Goosey Loosey. Don’t be so confident in your judgments and certain in your determinations. Don’t be so quick to act and fast to inflame. For we might just be hastening our own downfall.
I realize that this is easier said than done. It’s hard not to be filled with moral outrage and righteous indignation. Open the paper. Cut on the news. Scroll through social media. It’s enough to make Johnny Mathis start singing the blues.
We are living in a period of political anxiety and social angst.
There are conniving foxes who seek to foster fear and foreboding; unleash unease and uncertainty; capitalize on chaos and discord; double down on dread and dissension, and manipulate with mobocracy and misrule. Mistrust and misgiving abound.
But if we are not emotionally careful, intellectually cautious, and spiritually discerning, we will render ourselves vulnerable. We will become easy targets for those who operate according to obfuscation and STU-Pe-FACTION. In our unbridled anger and unhinged fervor, we will succumb to the deluge of absurdity. “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger—for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that anger does not have its place. Anger against evil, ignorance, and injustice is the fuel of human progress. But if we are not self-conscious and self-critical; if we are unwilling to slow down to investigate and interrogate our own assumptions, our anger might exacerbate rather than alleviate the problem. Fear, which is anger’s corollary, will have us elevating acorns and ignoring foxes. Fear and anger will have us prophesying our own destruction.
There is no reason for us to believe the sky is falling. Throughout history, falling acorns reflect the rule, not the exception. This is particularly true of American history. As Jon Meacham argues eloquently in his latest book, The Soul of America, we must slow down and reflect on what has come before. This arms us against despair. For “if the men and women of the past, with all of their flaws and imperfections and ambitions and appetites, could press on through ignorance, superstition, racism and sexism, selfishness and greed, to create a freer, stronger nation, then perhaps we, too, can right wrongs and take another step toward that most enchanting and elusive of destinations; a more perfect Union.” Yet we must champion cooperation over competition, and privilege winning hearts over winning elections. For God’s kingdom and compassion is not limited to national borders.
This is the point the author is trying to drive home. Despite our differences and disagreements; despite our competing affiliations and orientations; despite our religious creeds and political convictions, we, as human beings, are bound together. Republican, Democrat or Independent; North American and South American; African and Asian; Jewish and Muslim; Rich and Poor; Harvard Yard and Homeless Shelter; our lives are always and already inextricably linked by a common fabric of humanity and garment of destiny. We better slow down and learn to live together as brothers and sisters or perish together as fools. Slow down. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.
Activist and author Sally Kohn provides some helpful advice here in her book The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity. She notes that our natural inclination is to argue with those with whom we disagree. And while we need our frontal lobes to engage in reasoned discussion, this part of the brain shuts down whenever we feel threatened. Our flight or fight part of the brain kicks in—the same part of the brain that carries all of our biases and stereotypes.
So Kohn suggests we follow the ABC’s of communication. Whenever we engage in a conversation, we should first look for a feeling or sentiment that we can genuinely affirm from the other person’s perspective. We cannot expect anyone to listen to us if we show ourselves unwilling to listen to them. In most cases, you and I aren’t debating Neo-Nazis. We aren’t arguing with Klansman. In most cases, I’m talking about the very people we share holiday meals. So it shouldn’t be too hard to identify a point at which we both agree—something about their view that we can affirm.
After we affirm, then we are in a better position to bridge. By affirming how another feels, we can build a bridge to why we take a particular position. “I understand why something falling from the sky would make you afraid, Henny Penny. It happens to me, often as well. This is why I tend to look up and look around to make sure it’s not just a pine cone or acorn falling out of the tree.”
And after we affirm and bridge, then we are in a better position to convince. This is where we can start providing facts and figures to make our case. Frontal lobes are still receptive. Our comprehension is working better. And both of us are in a position to listen and learn from the other. Affirm, bridge, and then convince. “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and thus slow to anger.”
This is what the author of James wants for us. Slow down. Look up. Even in the midst of chaos, behold and affirm all that is beautiful. For when our minds are filled with negative thoughts, the world is, too. When our hearts are filled with confusion and chaos, it would appear that everyone else is, as well. When our souls are filled with anger and animosity, everyone we encounter appears evil and envious.
But there is no need to be tempests in our own teapots. If we are quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, we will develop the sort of critical, emotional, and spiritual intelligence necessary for a faithful life. Critical intelligence. Emotional intelligence. Spiritual intelligence. They balance one another. For if we have critical intelligence without emotional intelligence, we will lose sight of how our choices impact others. If we have emotional intelligence without spiritual intelligence, the enormity of suffering and injustice of this world will pull us into the pits of despair. Yet when we develop all three, we can cultivate the resources to address suffering humanity, while buoyed by the life vests of faith and hope.
Regardless of how dark the day or fierce the storm clouds. Regardless of how rough the waves or loud the thunder and lightning. You and I have a blessed assurance. We’ve got an anchor in the stormy sea. We’ve got a bridge over troubled water. We’ve got shelter in the time of a storm.
So go tell Henny Penny don’t be afraid.
Tell Cocky Locky not to fret.
Tell Ducky Lucky not to weep, and tell Goosey Loosey not to moan.
For if you and I hold on to God, as we hold on to one another….you might feel up, you might feel down, and sometimes you’ll feel level to the ground.
But you can still lift your head and sing, “I’ve got a feeling that everything is gonna be alright!” For I can look to the hills from which cometh my help. All of my help…