When I was growing up, one of the favorite pastimes at recess was to make fun of each other. There would be all kinds of wisecracks, “Yo Momma” jokes, you’re so poor comments, and other insults that got traded back and forth. When an especially “funny” insult came through, the recipient would hear “Ooh, you got burned.” The pressure would then be on that person to come up with an even more impressive insult to reply or they would lose status is the playground pecking order. Sometimes the pressure would be too much, and then the violence would move from verbal to physical and fists would fly. One of the reasons that Christianity can be such a scandal to the world around us is that we have a call on us to not do violence to our enemies. We are called to step outside of the schoolyard name-calling mentality that pervades the cultures of the world and love our enemies. We are called to look for where the Holy Spirit may be active in the lives of people we have absolute disagreement with. This call to love our enemies is easier to live into physically. We all know on some level that Christ does not want us to lay a beat down on those people who for one reason or another we can’t stand, but sometimes we can’t help but take some verbal potshots at those loony liberals or backwards conservatives. The sad thing is that I have heard these kinds of disparaging remarks from people who in almost every other way are doing their absolute best to follow Christ. Today’s scripture is a stark reminder that we have a higher calling, one that cannot be taken lightly.
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.
The book of James was written towards the end of his life, and it has a sense of urgency. I get the impression that James had some things he had learned through his time of leadership that he wanted to be sure were transmitted to the next generation of the church. I get the idea that this passage stems from James’ experience of that first major conflict in the church. I have to say that no other passage in the scriptures has made me question whether or not I wanted to be a pastor than this one. James is letting us know that we have a huge amount of responsibility on our shoulders when we take on a teaching role in the church. Each of us who teaches: be it Sunday School, discipling others, speaking from the pulpit on Sunday morning, or speaking during open worship will have our words measured by a strict standard, one that determines not only whether we taught the truth as we knew it, but whether we shared that truth in a spirit of love. How many of us fail at the second part of that? I know I do. James reminds us that each person makes mistakes with their words. He doesn’t say some of us or most of us, but that every single one of us makes mistakes with our words and communicates things that go against the truth of God’s way of being and doing what is right. From my own personal experience I have to say that taming the tongue is a challenge. I have been here long enough that while I may not have offended everyone, I have had to go to people and make apologies for when my tongue moved in unhelpful, hurtful ways. I know that I have failed in this way, and will unfortunately fail in this way again. I mourn the fact the words of my mouth sometimes betray the love in my heart. If I had to guess, I am sure that each of you has had the same experience.
One day I was in a bagel shop in New York and overheard an argument about which kind of bagel was the best. It started out with one person extolling the virtues of the egg bagel, how it had the best texture and flavor in the dough and another person arguing the superiority of the everything bagel. It quickly degenerated into a verbal battle in which both sides questioned the intelligence and taste of the other and with both parties trying to enlist others to assist them in shouting down the other person. I couldn’t imagine what it might have looked like if the two were arguing over politics or religion, but if it got that ugly over bagels… It doesn’t take much for words to burn us, just the wrong tone, issue, concern, or just the right tone, issue, or concern. Listening to people who we disagree with is tough, and when we have an emotional investment in something the fire in our tongues seems to leap higher and what comes from our mouths often burns another to the core. The question for us whose tongues sear others is not only one of how to exercise absolute control over our tongues, but how do we make amends, open ourselves up to the correction of others, even others we disagree with. As a leader in the church it is imperative for me to model both aspects of this. You might have noticed some failure on my part in this, but I have grown immensely by the grace of God in this area and work extra-hard at controlling my tongue and seeking out correction from others so that when I err I can learn from the mistake and not repeat it. You’ll notice I didn’t say if I err, I have no illusions about the completeness of God’s work in me. The work is started, and I am putting in my sweat equity and seeing progress, but God is definitely not through with me yet. Praise God that He who started the work in us will be faithful to complete it.
Have you ever had times in your life in which it seems like everything you say goes awry, that when you open your mouth what people hear doesn’t match what you think you are saying? I know that I sure do. Quite often those times are when I think I am being funny. You will never hear me utter the words “Can’t you take a joke?” because I know them for the copout they are. Humor can sometimes send the wrong message and be taken in ways we didn’t intend it, and quite a few of the “doghouse moments” in my marriage come from a misapplication of humor on my part. Sometimes when we attempt to defuse a situation with humor we instead communicate a lack of concern for others. I just have to wonder sometimes when I see what happens when I open my mouth whether it is worth it to keep on trying, I mean set on fire with the flames of hell is not the most encouraging image to work with. We can be disheartened by these words and allow ourselves to be defeated by our mistakes, our slips of the tongue, our burning words, or we can seek forgiveness, opening ourselves up to correction so that we might be refined into better followers of Christ. We can give and receive the grace of God to each other, and limpingly help each other to refine the use of our tongues to better glorify God.
The big question that arises here is how. What does it take for us to deal with the burning coals that live in our mouths? The first thing we have to do is be committed to the process of reconciliation given to us in Matthew 18:15-22.
15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” 21Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
In order for any of us to grow as followers of Christ we need this Matthew 18 process to make us aware of when we fail God, our faith community, and ourselves. Skipping the steps and talking about another’s failure without giving a chance at reconciliation breaks down the whole purpose of following Jesus. When we go to others first, rather than the person who has offended, we make our faith community a place in which reconciliation is impossible and it becomes our tongues that burn. When we refuse to listen to another who is telling us they have been hurt by our words or actions and go straight to defense we damage the process that refines us into better followers of Christ. How can we be reconciled to God or reconcile others to God when we refuse the process God has given us for reconciliation? How can we grow if we are not given the awareness and opportunity to fix what is broken? Jesus has given us the tools to break the cycle of gossip and self-defeat, if only we obey him and use them. Now I am sure that in however many years when I retire and it is time for the roast there will be some good natured ribbings about some boneheaded mistakes I had made at the beginning of my service, and I will submit to the deserved laughter at the idealistic follies of my first few years. I admit openly to having a lot to learn, and hope that you understand if I now take mistakes very seriously and work hard at receiving correction, correcting myself, and seeking out what I need to learn when I mess up and things go haywire. While I would love to not make mistakes, I am still human and need, just as much as each of you need it, the community of faith around me to help me walk through the consequences of speaking too quickly and causing hurt. We need the community of faith to help pick us up, brush us off, forgive us, turn us around, and help us walk in the right direction. Each of us needs this service from each other because we do have a higher call on us, we need to be held accountable to the Spirit of God in us. I would love to wrap this sermon up with a neat and tidy solution, but following God together is messy, and there are plenty of times in which what we really need is not more words, but to bring our messy selves and messy relationships, and messy church to be washed again by Jesus, to plunge into that life giving flow together, allowing Jesus blood and righteousness to cleanse us again. Hi my name is Gilbert George and I am a sinner. I sin against the people I am called to love, my family, my church, my neighbors, myself, but most deeply I sin against the God who loved me so much that he gave his son that through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus I can be part of God’s family. Each of us can stand up and say those same words with complete honesty, but know that that isn’t the end of the story. In the writings of 1 John we hear these words of hope:
9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. 2My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.