Acting on What You Hear PDF Print E-mail
Written by Skip Jackson   
Sunday, 02 September 2018
A Sermon by Sydney V. (Skip) Jackson — September 2, 2018
Indianola Presbyterian Church, Columbus, Ohio
Texts:  Luke 10:25-37;  James 1:19-27

Go and do the same. — Luke 10:37b [The Message]

Don’t fool yourself into thinking you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other.  Act on what you hear! — James 1:22 [The Message]

I’ve begun cleaning out my files, which is a real chore.  But one of the fun things has been looking through all those things I tucked away in folders for possible sermon use—a total of six hanging files all labeled “random neat stuff.”  There are poems and pictures, stories and songs, comic strips and (of course) jokes.  Here’s one of the jokes I never found a use for… until now.

It seems a Baptist church had undertaken a major remodeling project, so the people needed a place to worship on Sunday.  The only place they could find available was a cocktail lounge down the street.  A little strange for a Baptist congregation, yes, but they decided to give it a try because it was close by.  One feature of this particular bar, however, was it had a talking parrot that entertained the patrons.  Saturday night the owner cleared out the bar and set up the chairs, but the parrot was left there over the weekend.  When the minister walked in Sunday morning the parrot spoke up, “Wraaack!  New bartender, new bartender.”  Then the choir walked in, and the parrot screeched, “New floor show, new floor show.”  Finally the members of the congregation began taking their seats, and the parrot spoke up one more time, “Same old people, same old people.”

It’s awfully easy to be the “same old people.”  Summer is coming to a close, and next week the church “program year” begins.  And it can be so easy to just get back into the swing of things, going to the same old service, hearing the same old sermons, singing the same old hymns, going to the same old meetings, teaching in the same old Sunday school rooms.  I know my retirement will change things for you and for me, but there is a kind of momentum to sameness, to doing things the way we’ve always done them, to keeping on keeping on.  But Christianity isn’t about clinging to the old ways or being the “same old people.”  I think Marcus Borg had it exactly right when he wrote that “the Christian life is about entering into a relationship with God as known in Jesus Christ” and that “that relationship can—and will—change your life.”  With eyes opening, we will see differently.  With lives opening, we will live differently.

But do we?  There’s a great deal of human resistance to any such change—like the religion scholar in today’s Gospel reading.  Now I don’t want to put this man down, because I think he asks our question for us.  He knows the law well enough:  “That you love the Lord your God… and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.”  But when Jesus tells him to just go do it, he doesn’t.  He wants to know what we want to know.  Are there any loopholes?  Just who counts as a neighbor?  So Jesus responds by telling one of the most famous stories ever told about a most unlikely neighbor.  And then referring to this one who truly showed love of neighbor, Jesus says, “Go and do the same.

We’re not told how the religious scholar responded to Jesus telling him for the second time to go and do.  But I can’t help imagining the religious scholar in me still resisting, holding back from being drawn into some new relationship with some unknown person, and so asking, “Just exactly what is it I’m supposed to go and do?”  A narrow, literal interpretation might be that I am to go and scour the highway ditches for wounded travelers in need of aid.  Why can’t I just learn about God instead?  I’m good at that; that’s my gift.  I’ll read and listen and learn about God and come to believe the right things, maybe go to church regularly and worship “decently and in order.”  Why must I go and do the same?

James writes, “Don’t fool yourself into thinking you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other.  Act on what you hear!”  As far as he is concerned, those who merely hear the word and remain unchanged are deceiving themselves.  It’s surprisingly easy to deceive ourselves.  James says it’s like people who check out their reflection in a mirror and see a smudge of dirt on their nose and their hair all messed up, yet walk on without doing anything about it, without changing a thing.  Going to church, hearing scripture, singing the hymns, knowing the doctrines, believing the right things—all these are worth little without some movement to go and do.  Religion, says James, is not about “talking a good game.”  It’s about allowing ourselves to be transformed in ways that involve both who we are and what we do.  It’s about personal morality, yes, but it’s also about becoming better neighbors, better people in community.  “Real religion” recognizes the needs of all neighbors—no loopholes!—and then reaches out to meet those needs and also to stand in solidarity with those neighbors in striving for a better and more just world.

“Doing church” on Sunday mornings and then going on as the same old people is a fool’s game.  “The Christian life is about entering into a relationship with God as known in Jesus Christ,” and certainly Sunday worship is one of the primary ways that relationship is formed and nurtured.  But beyond this, “that relationship can—and will—change your life” …that is, if you’ll let it.  It will change who we are, and that will show up in what we do.

So we’re back to a version of the religion scholar’s question:  What is it we need to do?  I don’t have an answer for you… at least not any more specific than those Jesus and James offer—to go and do the same, to love your neighbor, to act on what you hear in God’s word.  I suppose it should also have something to do with living out the words we pray so frequently in the Lord’s Prayer.  It’s easy to let those familiar cadences—“Thykingdomcome,thywillbedone,” (pause…) “onearthasitisinheaven”—and thoughts of a heavenly kingdom distract us from the fact that what we’re praying for is the coming of God’s kin-dom here on earth.  Thy kin-dom come on earth; thy will be done on earth.  That’s one reason I select other versions of the Lord’s Prayer at times, so new words like “may your longings be our longings in heart and in action” might not “go in one ear and out the other” but stick and become a basis for acting on what we hear.

For me to be any more specific about all this risks asking you to do all the same things I do would do.    But all of you must find your own ways.  What I do comes directly out of who I am and who I am becoming through my “relationship with God as known in Jesus Christ.”  The same must be true for each of you as well.  “Act on what your hear,” says James.  But your acting must always be connected with who you are… and who you are becoming.

I remember some 30 years ago, as I began to share my plans to leave behind my career as a scientist and go to seminary, how a number of friends responded by saying how brave that was.  Now, I do see their point of view.  But from inside, from my side, it would have been harder, and therefore braver I suppose, for me to remain a scientist.  For there was this growing “I have to do this” thing about seminary and ministry. 

I had a similar “had to” experience about two years into my first pastorate in the small town of Lebanon, OR.  I’d walked over to the Post Office to mail a letter, and there was a card table set up out front with this guy handing out flyers promoting a ballot initiative from the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance to restrict homosexual rights.  The next thing I knew, I had my own card table out in front of the Post Office, with flyers I’d made up, and a sign saying “No to discrimination!”  I didn’t plan this.  It felt almost I’d been grabbed by the scruff of my neck and dragged me there.  It was a strong “had to” moment for me, directly connected with my relationship with the God I knew in Jesus Christ and how that was opening my eyes to injustice and changing my life.

We all know such “had to” moments at times in our lives… or we are able to recognize them in others.  And they don’t have to be earth-shattering.  In a very real sense, all Christians who are unsatisfied with being “the same old people” are “had to” people.  They choose to act on what they hear.  They “go and do the same,” becoming “doers of the word” as they attempt to reconstruct their lives as a roughed-out portion of God’s kin-dom come here on earth.  To be sure, all such attempts are partial and incomplete.  They are human actions, after all, limited and imperfect.  Yet God’s hand is in them, and each one offers a glimpse of God’s kin-dom and power and glory in our midst.

So let us look for and celebrate those “had to” moments and experiences.
—Why march for immigrant rights…a living wage…or gun control?  Had to!
—Why give food to people who aren’t working and will just be hungry tomorrow?  Had to!
—How can you march in the Pride parade?  Had to!
—Why build a Habitat house for just one family?  Had to!
—Why make up with that so-called friend who stabbed you in the back?  Had to!
—Why take time off from work to go to read to kids at a nearby elementary school?  Had to!
—Why work at passing legislation or registering new voters or going to BREAD meetings?  Politics is a waste of time.  Had to!
—Why do you go shopping for your neighbor every week?  Had to!
—How can you spend so much time volunteering at the hospital… or the senior center… or the blood bank?  Had to!
—Why bother sitting with your Alzheimer’s parent/friend/neighbor who doesn’t even know who you are?  Had to!
—Do you really tell your children you love them every day?  Had to!
—How can you keep teaching when the schools are such a mess?  Had to!
—Why help Mom and Dad around the house when you could be out having fun?  Had to!
—How can you smile and be so nice to everyone you meet?  Had to!
—Why are you so ready to share God’s love?  Had to!
“Had to” times are vivid and filled with life because they connect so directly to who we are and who we are becoming in the kin-dom of God.  Poet and novelist Alice Walker has written:  “To be such a person or to witness anyone at this moment of transcendent presence is to know that what is human is linked, by daring compassion, to what is divine.”

We are not “same old people.”  Not in God’s eyes.  We are reborn, recreated, renewed as God’s “had to” people.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


Luke 10:25-37 [The Message]

25 Just then a religion scholar stood up with a question to test Jesus.  “Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?”
26 He answered, “What’s written in God’s Law?  How do you interpret it?”
27 He said, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.”
28 “Good answer!” said Jesus.  “Do it and you’ll live.”
29 Looking for a loophole, he asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”
30-32 Jesus answered by telling a story.  “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers.  They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead.  Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side.  Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.
33-35 “A Samaritan traveling the road came on him.  When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him.  He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds.  Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable.  In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him.  If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’
36 “What do you think?  Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”
37 “The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded.
Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”


James 1:19-27 [The Message]

19-21 Post this at all the intersections, dear friends:  Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear.  God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger.  So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life.
22-24 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.  Act on what you hear!  Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.
25 But whoever catches a glimpse of the revealed counsel of God—the free life!—even out of the corner of his eye, and sticks with it, is no distracted scatterbrain but a man or woman of action.  That person will find delight and affirmation in the action.
26-27 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 the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.

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