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The New Humanity

Sermon - 9/13/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

James 3:1-12

It's always fun to see if, after taking 4 weeks off, I still know how to preach J.  So we'll see.

The text this morning is from the letter of James.  April introduced us to it two weeks ago (if you were not here, her sermon is on the web), and I commend it to you.  I will pick up with chapter 3, verses 1-12:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

 

This is a simple, straightforward message, it's basic Christianity 101.  Theology according to Thumper.  You all remember Bambi?  If you can't say anything nice, don't say nothin' at all.

Words matter.  Usually we emphasize walking the talk, but this is more the reverse of that -- the importance of talking the walk.  Keeping our speech consistent with our beliefs.  Engaging your brain, as they say, before your mouth.

Now, where can I ever find a story to illustrate the importance of watching what you say?  Well, there's Duck football J.  Of course I'm not referring to last night's great glorious game (a win over Purdue), but that sad affair a week before at Boise State (a loss).  Football, of course, is all about action on the field, right?  Words don't matter. . . .

Huh.  Ask LaGarette Blount whether or not words matter.  He is, of course, the Oregon running back who was suspended from the team for the entire year, his senior season, for starting a fight after the game.  Now, the whole sad affair, which could cost him a chance to play in the NFL, began not with the trash-talking after the game (words were spoken), not with his miserable, frustrating performance in the game (minus yardage for our star running back, the whole team very frustrated), no, it began way before the game.  In this moment of male bravado, firing up the team, he said something that he probably wishes he could take back, saying the other team (Boise St.) needed a good old fashioned . . . rear-end whoopin'.  Of course, he's a football player and I'm a preacher, so his words were a little more colorful than mine J.

Of course that got picked up by the coach of the opposing team as a motivator for their team.  And Blount then became the target, and in his frustration after the game lashed out inappropriately.

Now, if you read the letters-to-the-editor, you know all the controversy, those who think that he got of easy, those who think the punishment was too severe.  My point is that the whole affair would not have happened had he chosen his words more wisely, even before the game was played.

Speaking of the power of words, did you catch the President's address Wednesday?  Love him or hate him, you gotta admit this guy is an incredible orator.  He said:  "We did not come to fear the future, we can here to shape it".

Powerful words.  Adding to the drama of his speech, and the point of my illustration, was the representative Joe Wilson from South Carolina who broke all the rules of congressional etiquette and respect normally given to the President of the United States when addressing Congress, shouting out "You lie!" in the middle of his speech.  And while previous President's have been booed before by members of Congress, never has a sitting President been called a liar on the floor of the Congress in front of a nationally televised audience.

Coming from a representative from a state where the confederate flag still flies on Capital grounds, one cannot help but note that it was our first African-American President to be treated with such disrespect.

With the same tongue, says James, we bless God, and we curse those made in the image of God.

This ought not to be so.  Not in our homes, not in our churches, not in our community, not in the public square, not in the halls of Congress.  Words are important.

Now, you know I've shared a few words of my own on the healthcare issue.  And to no surprise I discovered some in this community do not agree with me, some in this church do not agree with me.  That's OK.  That's a healthy thing, to have dialogue, to have differing opinions, I think that's a good thing.  What is not OK, I am convinced, is for us as Christians to use tactics that our contrary to our values, as is becoming all too common in the growing anti-civil climate of this debate.  Using distortions (if not outright lies), fear tactics, and name calling. 

It's something that I feel pretty strongly about, before I went on vacation I dashed off a letter-to-the-editor, and along the way made my case why I believe it is our Christian responsibility (based on the parable of judgment in Matthew 25) to work for some kind of universal health coverage, as provided in every other industrialized nation.  Whether or not it's with a public option or a private option, a non-profit co-op or some other modified form of our market-driven healthcare system, I don't care.  The bottom line for me is that the number of uninsured people in this country is not just an economic failure, it's not just a political failure, it is a moral failure that is contrary to the Biblical vision of God's desire for our society and which we must change.

As always, you don't have to agree.  You can shout out "You lie!" J.

I suppose I come on a little strong at times, and especially when it's something that I feel passionately about.  And I'll be the first to admit I may not always choose the best words to convey those passions.  But I was a little chagrined when after making this point that we should not use distortions and name-calling, the first opposing letter-to-the-editor written in response took me on not offering an alternative Christian view or engaging in the issues, but by distorting my views and name-calling!

Now, obviously for that letter writer (and I suspect a few others), if my goal was to encourage greater civility and honesty in public discourse on our civic and Christian responsibility to the vulnerable (the least of these), I failed.  I chose the wrong words.

Sure, I scored some rhetorical points.  Received several positive responses.  But that probably didn't change anyone's minds or sway any opinions, and it even ticked a few people off.  Who then sought to, metaphorically speaking, whoop my rear-end on the editorial pages of the Register Guard.

And that got me to wondering:  maybe in my own zeal, I made the same verbal blunder as our would-be star running back.

And it's always a struggle to be prophetic and outspoken, forthright, and honest on the one hand, and yet to be conciliatory, open, pastoral on the other.  I welcome your feedback on those kinds of things. 

I take to heart then, these words from James:  "For all of us make many mistakes, anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect".  And heaven knows that's not me.

Eugene Peterson, commenting on this text, says in church everything that can go wrong does go wrong.  Failure to communicate, yeah.  Arguments, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, all those difficult personality conflicts and trying to work through things.  It's messy, tough stuff.

You've heard me before cite the example of the previous church where we served in Fresno where a woman quit the church because someone told her the communion cups were too full (she had filled them).  We had a woman in this church who quit because of a political cartoon I used years ago in a sermon.  Jerry Falwell was complaining to God, saying "Father God, I don't understand what's happening to this country, the feminists are taking over, civil rights changing everything, what do we do?".  A voice from heaven comes down on high:  "Well, for starters, don't call me Father".  Jerry is confused and says "What do I call you?".  Voice on high says:  "Big black mama would do well".

Well, it didn't sit well with this woman, it was very offensive to refer to God as a big black woman, and I couldn't do anything, I apologized, but it didn't change her mind.

Sometimes it seems trivial, but obviously for her it wasn't.  Words do matter.

Outsiders see all the things that happen inside the church and say "See, look, they're no better than the rest of us!".  Insiders say "Yeah, that's right.  We're just human".

Those outsiders, they say "Yeah, these hypocrites!  Say one thing and do another".

Insiders say:  "You know, it's hard to practice what you preach.  Sometimes, we fail".

Not everyone can or should be teachers, James says.  I know I struggle to be true to my word at times, I don't always live up to it.  There are times when I know you all say "What on earth were you thinking?".  And you know what, I don't come here Sunday after Sunday because you're the shining example of perfection either J.

We all make mistakes, say things we wish we hadn't (probably that last comment will be one of them J), do things we'd like to take back.  And that's not to justify it and say "well, it's OK, everyone does it".  It's just to say we are all in the same boat.  Held afloat by the forgiving grace of God.

Though the church made James into a saint, he's really no different than any of us.  He knows how hard it is to hold your tongue.  He knows how harmful, even damning, it can be, that words can really hurt.  Because he too is in this boat.  If he is the same James mentioned by Paul in Paul's letter to the Galatians, James the brother of the Lord, he said some unkind things about Gentiles.  How they were inferior to Jewish Christians.  And Paul called him and Peter out, pointed out the hypocrisy.  And maybe later in life James realized Paul was right.  Came to understand that words matters.

So he knows of what he speaks, and he urges his readers to be wise in their use of words.

Friday morning, we heard some very helpful words from Sadhvi Chaitanya, who is a Hindu woman, a teacher.  I think if taken to heart it would help us choose our words more carefully.  She spoke of the ancient Hindu wisdom tradition in which it is taught that all things are a manifestation of God. 

That annoying neighbor, who mows his lawn at 6:00 a.m. is a manifestation of God.

That woman who cut you off in traffic is a manifestation of God.

And we say 'Wait a second, that just doesn't compute, how can that be?'.  She said we have to distinguish between the deed and the do-er.  For all being is a manifestation of God, but not all doing is a manifestation of God's will.

Mowing the lawn at 6:00 a.m.?  Probably not in God's will, at least not for you.

And when we redirect our anger at that person who cuts us off in traffic to the being instead of the person, and we see that person as part of that which is holy, it changes our perception.  And that in turn changes our thoughts and will change our words spoken in anger.

And you see that is not all that different from Christian teaching which says that every person is made, created, in God's image.

So here's a little trick you might try to change your own thinking, and speaking:  call to mind that person that is so irritating you have trouble saying nice things about them.  And say to yourself:  that person is created in the image of God.

And here's the tough one -- when you're thinking about yourself, feeling you're too angry, or fat, or dumb, or saying "I am so. . . ", fill-in the blank.  Say to yourself:  I am created in the image of God.

Words matter.  They shape how we think of ourselves and other people.  Relationships live and die by our words.  You want a bad marriage?  Complain about spouse.  You want to raise problematic children?  Put them down every chance you get.  You want to be in a community that is cold and fragmented?  Well, then gossip.

But if you want a good marriage, speak highly about your spouse.  You want healthy, happy children?  Fill them with praise.  If you want a warm, loving community, compliment one another behind their backs.

God gives us a vision for how we are to live in community with one another, building each other up, supporting one another with our words.  Sharing God's love and forgiveness until it is contagious. 

Choose our words wisely, and that community we seek will thrive and grow. 

Right here. 

May it be.

 


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