Sermon for September 13, James 3:1-12 (The Voice)
Introduction before reading scripture:
Last Sunday, my colleague and friend, the Rev. Kate McGregor Mosley preached on the challenging message in James’ Letter to Jewish believers, focusing specifically on selected verses from chapters 1 and 2. And now this morning, with the reading of chapter 3:1-12, we are confronted once again by the Word of God spoken through James, the brother of Jesus. Before reading the scripture from a modern translation entitled “The Voice”, I’d like to share an introduction written by the editors of this scripture project:
In this letter, James is writing to his fellow Jewish Christians scattered throughout the world in the first century. He is concerned with preserving a connection between his Jewish heritage and the movement begun by Jesus. James does not see himself as a leader of a new religion, but as a Jew who follows the Jewish Liberator…James takes honoring the law very seriously; in this letter, he encourages all believers to simply practice what they preach.
Listen now for the word of the Lord in James 3:1-12:
My brothers and sisters, do not encourage a large number of you to become teachers because teachers will be held to a higher standard. We all stumble along the way. If a person never speaks hurtful words or shouts in anger or profanity, then he has achieved perfection.
The one who can control his tongue can also control the rest of his body. It’s like when we place a metal bit into a horse’s mouth to ride it; we can control its entire body with the slightest movement of our hand. Have you ever seen a massive ship sailing effortlessly across the water? Despite its immense size and the fact that it is propelled by mighty winds, a small tongue-shaped rudder directs the ship in any direction the pilot chooses. It’s just the same with our tongues! It’s a small awkward muscle, capable of marvelous undertakings.
But do you know how many forest fires begin with a single ember from a small campfire? The tongue is a blazing fire seeking to ignite an entire world of vices. The tongue is unique among all parts of the body because it is capable of corrupting the whole body. If that were not enough, it ignites and consumes the course of creation with a fuel that originates in hell itself.
Humanity is capable of training every bird and beast in existence, even reptiles and sea creatures great and small. But no man has ever demonstrated the ability to tame his own tongue! It is a spring of restless evil, brimming with toxic poisons. Ironically this same tongue can be both an instrument of blessing to our Lord and Father and a weapon that hurls curses upon others who are created in God’s own image.
One mouth streams forth both blessings and curses. My brothers and sisters, this is not how it should be. Does a spring gush crystal-clear-fresh water and moments later spurt out bitter salt water? My brothers and sisters, let’s be reasonable. Does a fig tree produce olives? Is there a grapevine capable of growing figs? Can salt water give way to freshwater?
The Barna Group, a California based research firm well known for its studies on Christianity and culture, conducted a series of surveys between 2004 and 2007, sampling 440 non-Christians (and a similar number of Christians) aged 16 to 29, which revealed that 38% had a “bad impression” of present-day Christianity. From the surveys, the Barna Group found the three most common perceptions of present-day Christianity are: 1) anti-homosexual (an image held by 91 percent of young outsiders); 2) judgmental (87 percent), and 3) hypocritical (85 percent). As one survey participant put it:
“Most people I meet assume that Christian means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, anti-gay, anti-choice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe.”
David Kinnamen, the president of The Barna Group, and Gabe Lyons, the founder of Fermi Project, which commissioned the surveys, analyze these findings in their best-selling book unChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why It Matters. The authors report that the 16-29 year-olds outside the faith had the following negative perspectives on how Christians act in the public square:
- Christians say one thing but live something entirely different
- Christians drown out and demonize the voices of others
- Christians do not respect leaders whose political view point is different from their own
- Christians are prideful and quick to find fault in others
There you have it, an honest and unabashed perception of Christianity from the mouths of babes…or to be more accurate from bright, articulate and heartfelt youth and young adults.
These groundbreaking statistics and statements compiled from the nation’s young people, while astonishing to many Christians, probably wouldn’t surprise James, the brother of Jesus, one tiny bit. If anything, James (were he alive today) would be frustrated that after 2000 plus years, Christians don’t heed his advice any better now than Jewish believers did in the first century. “C’mon folks, I couldn’t have said it more simply” James might say to today’s Jesus followers. “This is not tough stuff to comprehend; why don’t you get it?”
James’ advice is good common sense that many Christians, regardless of age, know to be true from just a few years of experience in the world. And yet, history shows more and more that Christians vastly ignore the basic biological fact that our tongues control our bodies (like a mouth bit controls a horse or a rudder guides a ship) and that we cannot tame our tongues.
James is very clear: The tongue is a blazing fire seeking to ignite an entire world of vices. The tongue is unique among all parts of the body because it is capable of corrupting the whole body. It that were not enough, it ignites and consumes the course of creation with a fuel that originates in hell itself….No man has ever demonstrated the ability to tame his own tongue! It is a spring of restless evil, brimming with toxic poisons.
This passage is preceded by another direct statement from James at the end of chapter 1 regarding how we speak: If you put yourself on a pedestal, thinking you have become a role model in all things religious, but you can’t control your mouth, then think again. Your mouth exposes your heart, and your religion is useless.
In his book Testimony: Talking Ourselves Into Being Christian, Tom Long, a professor of preaching at Emory, reminds us that language is powerful. He writes:
Words can bless, and words can curse. Words can build up, and words can destroy. Words can create relationships of love and trust, and words can destroy another’s reputation. Whenever we use our words to join in the activity of God in the world—to form community, to heal, to forgive, to set things right—we are bearing faithful witness to God.
And while there are many loving words being used for the activity of God, there are just as many hateful words being used to counter the activity of God. We’ve all heard hateful speech spewed by fellow Christians, in church communities, in schools, in neighborhoods and most prevalently in the media.
The recent 8th anniversary of the September 11th attacks reminded me of how several Christian leaders in the arena of faith and politics have publically proclaimed that this event occurred because of God’s wrath toward others. Hours after the Twin Towers fell, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, a popular conservative evangelist, said on a public TV broadcast:
I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’
A few years later, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, while still the pastor of the mega Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, preached a sermon in which he said:
God *curse* America for treating our citizens as less than human. God *curse* America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.
Unfortunately, the hate speech doesn’t stop with extremist Christian leaders.
Many liberal Christians made vehement and unfounded claims that President George W. Bush and his policies were similar to that of Hitler and the Nazis, during the remaining years of the Bush presidency. Those same hateful claims continue to be thrown today at President Barack Obama by many conservative Christians as well as radio pundits and everyday citizens who claim the president is a Communist-Socialist-Nazi Muslim radical terrorist. And both Presidents, men of strong Christian faith, have hurled insults at those whom they disagree with, as have many Christian senators, representatives and voters belonging to the Democratic and Republican parties.
Spend a few moments watching the cable news channels and YouTube or reading online comments on news websites and blogs and you’ll quickly find more Christians of all kinds saying hateful words about another person who is different from them.
It is the destructive words from the mouths of Christians that Dan Merchant, an Emmy-Award winning television writer/producer, believes is contributing to great division in this country. In his 2008 independent documentary, Lord, Save Us from Your Followers: Why Is the Gospel of Love Dividing America?” (which will be re-released in theaters later this month) Merchant—a practicing Christian—dons a white painter’s jumpsuit, plasters it with a variety of opinionated bumper stickers about religion and travels the country for on-the-street interviews.
Merchant’s goal, which he successfully achieves, is to open up honest dialogue about how bumper-sticker statements tend to present the gospel in an un-loving way and stifle heart to heart conversation about complex hot-button issues. Bumper stickers like:
God give me the strength to deal with all the idiots who cross my path
Try Jesus: If you don’t like him, the devil will always take you back
Annoy a Republican, Think For Yourself
The Republican Party is at war with terrorism, the Democratic Party is at war with my exhaust pipe
That Obama sticker on your car might as well say, “I’m stupid”
Nuke a communist baby seal for Christ
Jesus loves you, but everyone else thinks you’re a jerk
Merchant, who reflects on the documentary in a book with the same name, realizes early on that one of the main reasons for the division is that people “don’t have any idea how they sound.” He writes:
Christianity is turning into a bad word with dubious meaning in American society because we don’t care how we sound with those who don’t agree with us. There are many believers who, and they have their reasons, feel like we must “Take Back America from the Godless Secularists.” There is pent-up aggression that has exploded in this country and is manifest in an ongoing collision of faith and culture…As believers…we don’t care cause we’re right anyway—and to add insult to injury, we won’t listen.
Sadly these collisions and divisions that folks have with one another occur within the walls of Christian churches. I’m just as guilty as the next Christian of saying a hurtful word to another believer or talking smack about people of other denominations like the Baptists or the Catholics.
And I don’t always practice my Christianity in public. I sometimes yell obscenities at a fellow motorist or curse the check-out clerk while leaving the store because she took 15 minutes to ring up my purchases. Even worse, I’ve often said hurtful belittling words behind another person’s back. I’ve ridiculed their Christian thinking and their beliefs, confident that I was absolutely right and they were undoubtedly wrong.
Of course, I should know better by now. Not because I’m a minister, but because I’ve had plenty of hateful words hurled at me during my life. Receiving a snarky comment following a sermon, though, was small in comparison to the jabs I received as a teenager.
Good friends from school who were Christians and closer friends in my youth group would tease me because I wore glasses with thick lenses or didn’t understand what was “cool.” Classmates who were involved in Christian organizations like YoungLife would grab the small loop on the back of button-up shirt to let me know I had a “fag tag” or they would call me a “pansy” for not being able to catch a football. And yet, despite the mistreatment, I still picked on others at school who were weaker than I was.
Over time I’ve realized that the mean things I or others have said to each other didn’t make us bad people. Not everything I or they said in their lifetimes was hurtful. Good and caring words came from my mouth as well as those of my friends and peers. And all of those in my youth group regularly uttered words of praise and thanksgiving in worship and places like the Montreat Youth Conference.
That’s the ironic part, according to James. This same tongue can be both an instrument of blessing to our Lord and Father, he says, and a weapon that hurls curses upon others who are created in God’s own image. One mouth streams forth both blessings and curses.
The most wonderful illustration of this verse can be found in a scene from the 2004 movie Saved!, starring Mandy Moore and Jenna Malone, about daily life at a Christian prep school. In the scene, the self-righteous and hypocritical Hillary Faye (played by Moore) believes her friend Mary (Malone’s character) who is struggling with her faith and the school’s monopoly on Christianity, needs to be saved.
Hilary Faye: Mary, turn away from Satan. Jesus, he loves you.
Mary: You don’t know the first thing about love.
Hilary Faye: [throwing a Bible at Mary] I am FILLED with Christ’s love! You are just jealous of my success in the Lord.
Mary: [Mary holding up the Bible] This is not a weapon! You idiot!
It’s a funny and revealing moment about the similar realities that many teens (and many adults), Christians and non-Christians alike, similarly face in their own schools.
But James reminds us that this is not how it should be. Our mouths were not made to spew hateful words toward another person. God didn’t create us or our tongues to become weapons that hurl curses upon another child of God.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu wisely says that God created us to be in interdependent community with one another, to be people who serve as centers of love and oases of peace. Drawing on the language of James, the archbishop, in his book God Has a Dream, says:
Let us watch our tongues. We can so easily hurt one another. Our harsh words can extinguish a weak, flickering light. It is far too easy to discourage, all too easy to criticize, to complain, to rebuke. Let us try instead to see even a small amount of good in a person and concentrate on that…I’m coming to believe more and more in the truth that everything we do has consequences. A good deed doesn’t just evaporate and disappear. Its consequences saturate the universe and the goodness that happens somewhere, anywhere, helps in the transfiguration of the ugliness. But also it is true that a bad deed…doesn’t just evaporate and disappear, its consequences saturate the universe, too.
God never intended for us to drip bile from our tongues any more than God intends for fresh water springs to suddenly spurt out bitter salt water or a fig tree to yield olives.
So let us not live contrary to how we’ve been made. Let us in all that we do be the images of God we were created to be in this world. Let us do so by being slow to speech when we are angered by another. Let us do so by allowing the loving Word to rest on our tongues, to guide our bodies and to speak forth words of hope from our mouths.
unchristian: What A New Generation Thinks About Christianity…And Why It Really Matters, David Kinnamen and Gabe Lyons, 2007
Testimony: Talking Ourselves Into Being Christian by Tom Long, 2004
Lord, Save Us From Your Followers by Dan Merchant, 2008
God Has A Dream: A Vision for Hope In Our Time by Desmond Tutu, 2005
Saved! starring Mandy Moore, Jena Malone, Patrick Fugit, and Macaulay Calkin, 2004