Tuesday, August 11, 2015

James: Tongues of Fire

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was James 1:19-27, 3:1-12, and 4:11-12:

Perhaps appropriately enough since today is the last Sunday before school begins, but last week Gerry Lightwine who was our guest preacher gave you all a homework assignment and that was to go and read the Letter of James all the way through?  Did everyone do that?  Well did you at least read chapter 7 because that’s probably the most important?  That was a trick question because there are only 5 chapters in James.  It’s one of the shortest letters we have, but still very important with what it means to be a Christian and more importantly how it is that we are to live a Christian life.  James is concerned about not what we confess but about what we do, and that is very evident in today’s passages in which we hear about taming and controlling the tongue.  Because he says that the same tongue that we use to confess God, to bless God, is the same tongue that we then use to curse others who are made in the image of God, indicating that our confession of God or of Jesus doesn’t really mean much because we are double-tongued and live out something else other than that blessing.
There are several reasons why I chose these passages for today, in our penultimate series on James.  We hear a lot about bullying in school these days and so I thought it would be a good time to remind ourselves about the dangers that our words can pose to others.  In addition, James has something to say for us as adults as well, because he tells us that not everyone should become a teacher.  I remember at another church when this reading came up in the lectionary, the person reading that Sunday was a teacher and she said she wishes she had read this before she decided to become a teacher.  She also thought other teachers should be reminded of this passage every year so they remembered the incredibly important position they hold in taking on their students each year.  So teachers remember that you have a precious place in your student’s lives and what you do does matter.

But, I don’t think that James is just thinking here of school teachers, especially since that wasn’t part of his reality, but instead about others who take positions of authority within the community, who are communicating the faith and who are seen as the face of the religion.  This is something that weighs heavily on me as a preacher.  Long before I had ever read James, I believed that preachers would be held to a high standard by God when we came to meet God face to face, as there are other passages that indicate this as well.  So, as I have said before, I think carefully about what it is that I say knowing that what I say influences people and that I will be held accountable for both the bad and the good.  But I think James’ injunction for teachers is really much, much broader, because in reality aren’t all of us teachers in one way or another.  We are teachers in the roles where we are directly teaching, but we are also teachers as parents, as grandparents, as aunts and uncles, as friends, as acquaintances as total strangers, because everything we do sends a message to someone else about who we are and how we behave.  Have you ever seen someone with a Jesus fish on their car doing something rudely, and perhaps doing something that is less than Christian in appearance?  What impact did that have on you, and what impact does it have on others, especially those who are not part of the faith?  And what does that actually say about their faith?  James says that a spring cannot pour forth both fresh and brackish water, and by reference then if you see brackishness coming out what type of spring is actually there?

But James also recognizes that none of us live up to the standards we would like to have for ourselves, or that God sets for us.  “Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect,” James says, but he also says, “All of us make many mistakes.”  James is really providing John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, with some of the language he would later use that we are moving on to perfection.  Perhaps James is even echoing Jesus when he tells us to be perfect as God is perfect.  So we have the goal that we are aiming towards, and that God is calling us to reach.  But we also know that there are times in which we are not going to reach that goal.  That should give us both encouragement but also give us pause.  We should be encouraged because it means that God knows we are going to fail in living up to this standard and we know that God’s grace will cover us.  But it should give us pause because once we know the rules, and we know that we will be held to a higher standard, that means that we actually then have to start paying attention to what we say, knowing the power that our words have not just one others but even on ourselves.

James has already told us basically don’t judge a book by its cover, don’t show partiality to anyone, that instead we are to follow the royal law, and who remembers what James says the royal law is?  To love our neighbor as ourselves.  And that doesn’t mean that if we don’t find something particularly hurtful ourselves that means that we get to use it.  Someone once told me that he had grown up using the N word, that it was just part of the culture, and of course this person is white, that he didn’t really think anything of it, but that he had then found out that n-words didn’t like being called the n-word and he didn’t understand what had happened, and didn’t understand why he wasn’t supposed to use the word anymore.  Of course his response was that it was political correctness run wild.  My response was that it had nothing to do with political correctness, but everything to do with common decency.  Next time you hear someone using the phrase political correctness, or you want to use it yourself, try replacing it with “common decency.”  So then we’ll hear people saying things like “that’s just the madness of common decency.”

Because the truth is that words matter.  Jesus said that it’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but instead it’s what comes out that defiles, and that is because what comes out reveals the interior thoughts and ideas.   They don’t just describe reality they in fact create reality.  They tell us what we think and believe, and they tell others what we think and believe about them.  Gandhi said that “Your beliefs become your thoughts,  your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, and your values become your destiny.”  Our words matter and words create reality, and for Christians they can be absolutely no debate about this.

If we do not believe that words matter then we might as well shut the doors and go home.  If words don’t matter, if words don’t lead to action, if words have no import then there is certainly no point for me to be standing up here speaking to you.  If words don’t matter than there is certainly no reason for us to be reading scripture.  If words don’t matter then there is absolutely no reason for us to be offering up our prayers to God, they’re just meaningless words.  But we know that words do matter.

God said let there be light, and there was light.  Words create, words challenge, words form, words matter.  John says “and the word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.”  The Word became flesh.  Words matter.  Words become flesh.  Words create.  Words corrupt.  Words make realities.  If all we ever hear are words of hate, or fear, or rage or animosity or wrath, then we are swimming in a toxic pool which can only corrupt us and fill us with the poisons which surround us.  In Christianity we talk about having tongues of fire, but when we are saying that it’s about the Pentecost experience, of being filled with the Holy Spirit so that we cannot control ourselves that we have to spread the gospel message to the world.  The tongues of fire that James is talking about though, are different, although with the same causes and the same results.   That the tongue can be a small fire and it can set the world ablaze, and that can be for good and for ill.   Are we setting the world on fire with love and kindness and generosity, or are we setting it on fire with hate and vitriol and violence?  Because words can be violent and they can hurt.  We say sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me, but we know it’s not true.  Words hurt.  Words create.  Words tear down.  Words create realities.  Words matter.

And James says that words we use, the tongue we say them with, drive what we do.  They are the bit in the mouth and the rudder on the ship, even though they are small, they guide and lead us, and they provide the direction, because they reveal what’s actually going on behind the scenes.  That’s why James urges us to be quick to listen and slow to speak, and slow to anger, because anger does not produce God’s righteousness.  One of the things that keeps me in check when I’m in public and want to strike out against someone with my tongue is to say, “What would I do if this person was to show up for church? How would I explain my actions in that situation versus what I claim to believe?”  You can do the same thing when you feel like saying something you might regret.  You could ask yourself if you would be happy if a video of it showed up on Facebook or YouTube?  Or what about if someone were to quote you, would this be something you would like to be remembered for?  You can also do the same thing to someone else.  If someone wants to share some gossip with you, or say something negative about someone else, ask them if you can quote them on it?  More than likely they are going to say no, which maybe will give them time to pause, or time for you to say that you really don’t want to hear what they want to say.

Words matter.  Words can set the world on fire, and James tells us that if anyone thinks themselves to be religious, we might change that and say anyone who says they are a Christian, and if they do not bridle their tongue, then they are deceiving themselves and their religion is worthless.  Let me say that again, that if anyone thinks themselves to be a Christian, and if they do not bridle their tongue, then they are deceiving themselves and their religion is worthless.  Bet you won’t see that on many bumper stickers, but perhaps we should, and we should all take heed of what James is saying to us, especially if we all begin to see ourselves as teachers and know that we will be held to a higher standard.  Because what I sort of imagine, and I have no proof for this, but I sort of imagine that God has God’s own version of YouTube and we are going to see these moments played back to us and we will have to answer for ourselves about whether we were deceiving ourselves, that our religion was worthless because instead of producing clean water, instead we put forth brackish water.

And then there is the last caveat, and that is not to judge others.  That relates to the things we say about others, which relates to treating our neighbors as ourselves, because when we judge we choose to make hierarchical relationships, and put ourselves above others, into the seat of judgement.  But even worse for James when we do that, not only do we put ourselves above others, but we put ourselves into the seat occupied by God, who is the ultimate judge.  So in judging we judge ourselves to be like God, and that’s bound to get us into trouble.  Instead we should focus on what we can control, and that’s really us.  We can control our own actions, we can control our own tongues, we can control our own faith, we can control what the world sees and hears from us, and we can control how God will approach and judge us.

One of the most famous songs from the musical Into the Woods says “Careful the things you say, children will listen, careful the things you do, children will see and learn, children may not obey, but children will listen, children will look to you for which way to turn, to learn what to be, careful before you say ‘Listen to me’, children will listen.”  The truth is we are all children and we are all teachers.  We are called to be quick to listen and slow to speak, and when we speak to watch what it is that we say because words matter, words count, words create and words destroy, so as teachers we need to be aware of what the spark of our tongue will do to the world.  Will it release a fire of love or a fire of destruction?

We need to ask ourselves if what we say is how we want to be remembered, if we would like to see it replayed or if we want someone to quote us using the same words.  If not, then we need to try and think of something to say, or better yet to say nothing at all.  As Mark Twain said, “it’s better to keep your mouth shut and have people think you’re a fool, then to open it and remove all doubt.”  What we say reveals who and what we are, whether we are people of faith or whether our religion is worthless, and what we say matters, because words matter.  God said let there be light, and there was light, and the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.  We are all teachers and we are all students, so we all need to be cognizant of what we say, and how we say it, and seek to live into the royal law to love our neighbors as ourselves.  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment