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
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.
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. . . .
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
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
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
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
As always, you don't
have to agree. You can shout out "You lie!"
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
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
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.
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
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".
"You know, it's hard to practice what you preach. Sometimes, we
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
We all make mistakes,
say things we wish we hadn't (probably that last comment will be one of
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.
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.
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.
May it be.