James 3:1-12 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
3 My friends, we should not all try to become teachers. In fact, teachers will be judged more strictly than others. 2 All of us do many wrong things. But if you can control your tongue, you are mature and able to control your whole body.
3 By putting a bit into the mouth of a horse, we can turn the horse in different directions. 4 It takes strong winds to move a large sailing ship, but the captain uses only a small rudder to make it go in any direction. 5 Our tongues are small too, and yet they brag about big things.
It takes only a spark to start a forest fire! 6 The tongue is like a spark. It is an evil power that dirties the rest of the body and sets a person’s entire life on fire with flames that come from hell itself. 7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and sea creatures can be tamed and have been tamed. 8 But our tongues get out of control. They are restless and evil, and always spreading deadly poison.
9-10 My dear friends, with our tongues we speak both praises and curses. We praise our Lord and Father, and we curse people who were created to be like God, and this isn’t right. 11 Can clean water and dirty water both flow from the same spring? 12 Can a fig tree produce olives or a grapevine produce figs? Does fresh water come from a well full of salt water?
Sermon for September 16, 2018 – Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
At Feeding Hills Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
James. So direct and clear. After a month of sermons focused on the dysfunctional Ephesians, James brings us back to the issue that seemed to be their downfall – the way they talked to – and about – each other. There were apparently people in the Ephesus congregation who could not find a good word to say about or to each other. James, in this section of his epistle, is dealing with the same issue. What’s worse, though, is that he’s doing this, not to address the weak and self-destructive tendencies of one little church. James is a general letter, written “to the twelve scattered tribes” for circulation among all the churches in the world he knew. What does that tell you?
Bad-mouthing each other was a common problem in churches in those days. I can guarantee you, it is the number one most self-destructive thing people did in churches then, and, sadly, it comes up sooner or later no matter where you go today as well. How to address this?
Well, James addressed it by writing a letter saying what he thought needed saying. What he said was clear to me. Was it clear to you? Let’s walk quickly through these verses, and then I’d like to shift to a more positive approach to the same issue.
First – a word for teachers. By the way, my full job title is “pastor and teacher.” Who is James talking to here? Pastors and teachers. So, starting with me, by example, the expectation is that I should be careful of what I say. It sets a tone. That’s on me and on anyone else who is filling a teaching role here at church – Bible study leaders, book group leaders, etc. And, according to James, if teachers have the ability to control their tongues, the rest follows. So that’s the good news, If we can control our tongues, we won’t need anybody to tell us, “Don’t give me no lines and keep your hands to yourself.” If we have the tongue under control, James has a word for that condition – “maturity.” Those who cannot control their tongues, however, would not qualify as mature. So the question is, “what does it mean to control our tongues?” Are we all clear so far? Any questions about what is being said here?
Next, James gives what would be familiar analogies to explain what it means when we don’t have our tongues under control. The tongue is like a bit in a horse’s bridle or the rudder of a ship, he says. In fishing villages around his Mediterranean world, everybody knew what a rudder was for. We can choose the direction for a large, powerful animal like a horse with that small bit. And the rudder? This small, hardly visible part of even a large ship set the direction it would go. The same is true for the tongue, James explains. We can steer a conversation, set the tone in a meeting, impact any relationship how? With kind words or little digs. Are we in agreement? We can build up the church or tear it down with that same little rudder, our tongues.
Next, James compares the tongue to fire and to wild animals. Both are easier to get under control than the tongue. What has he seen people do with their tongues? Spread deadly poison. If what we have to say cannot be said directly and kindly, where are our words coming from according to James? Hell itself. Does anybody have any questions about what James has to say? If we see the church as a place to do some good in the world, but we can’t even keep from dealing with our differences directly and kindly, what hope to do we have to accomplish anything positive?
Finally, James points out a discrepancy. God put tongues in our heads to enable us to praise God. If we use them to attack each other, undercut each other, badmouth each other, what does that say about us? A lot more than it says about the person we’re talking about.
OK, we’ve dealt with the way James approached this issue. Here’s where I’d like to take it.
The issue is basically self-control. James focused on the words people say. There are more ways to speak, of course, than with words. In fact, most of our communication is non-verbal. I like the song Alison Krauss recorded a number of years ago. She sang that, “The smile on your face lets me know that you need me, there’s a truth in your eyes saying you’ll never leave me. The touch of your hand says you’ll catch me, if ever I fall. You say it best when you say nothing at all.” Beautiful song. What’s it mean? It means someone is there for her. She can tell by that smile, that touch, those eyes. It’s like this.
Self-control has many aspects. If we are saying kind and supportive words, that’s a good start. But first, of course, we have to be present and accountable for each other. In Keith Whitley’s song, Krauss is singing about a smile, a touch, eye-contact – all the stuff in a one on one relationship that sends a message. The message is, “I’m not just physically in the room. I’m here for you.”
Oddly enough, this applies to church relationships as well. How do we tell each other we matter? It’s how we spend the time we spend together. Another way of thinking about it – how do we recognize God’s love? It’s where we put our time and talent and treasure. If our checkbooks don’t lie, the way we spend our time says ten times more. I’ve often told people that joining a church is a lot like getting married. You’re standing in front of the congregation. You’re making promises. People are making promises to you. And it’s all about two things: Commitment and self-control.
I’d like to use my relationship with Debbie, my wife, here for an illustration. I hope she gets over it. When I was putting this together, it struck me that talking about our life together was the best example I could come up with to say what I think needs saying because it’s what I know best. So here goes.
First, I’ve always thought that her birthday and our anniversary should be national – universal – holidays. When I worked at a job with a set schedule, there was nothing more important than going out together for those two days of the year. Now that we both have careers that can get in the way – how many times has our anniversary fallen on Ash Wednesday? – once work is done, there’s still SOMETHING that says this day is special. Nothing – not my job – not our kids – nothing is more important to me than her. If we can’t find time for each other, the message we are sending is this: “all of these people and all these things matter more than you do.” There is no honest way to work around that. Other things follow – building a family, developing a career – but it all starts with her. I have never lost sight of that. I don’t see how any relationship can last unless it gets top priority.
An example. We differ on some things. She’s a foodie. I could live at McDonald’s. But, given the way our jobs go, I realized at some point that it would be nice if I learned how to cook something she could honestly say was a good meal. So, years ago, I got a subscription to Food and Wine magazine and started spending some of my Fridays off preparing dinners that she would enjoy. Our kids, when they were younger and at home, kept themselves occupied. I’d get them a pizza or something. But this time was for us. This was Mom and Dad time. We’d shove the furniture aside and put on dance music later after dinner. I’m like King David when it comes to this. I dance with joy. But the food and wine was and is all about her. But – more important I think, is the message that I send about choosing to spend my time this way. What’s the message? I build my life around you. I think – I could be wrong – but I think this is at least a part of the reason we’re still married. Long-term relationships require a significant investment in time, talent, and treasure. Kind words. Thoughtful deeds. But, most important of all – that sense of priorities – how I spend my time.
This, of course, works both in personal terms and at the church level. If we don’t see you at church for a while and you don’t communicate with us, either by initiating contact or by responding to our attempts to reach out, we assume you’ve lost interest in membership and your name is removed from the rolls. I hate it when that happens, but if communication breaks down, there’s no point in pretending we’re all in this together. We’re not. The covenant has been broken.
So it is in a personal relationship. If we were not setting aside much time for us as a couple, we would clearly be headed for a breakup. I’ve seen this so many times here over the years. Time is more precious than cold, hard cash. Kids grow up and leave, or at least they should. I’ll get back to that. Only my wife is for the long haul. Communication requires commitment to time together without distractions.
Whether it’s at church or at home, the way we spend our time together sets a tone.
Church is the other priority in my life. I don’t have time for much beyond these two commitments. Maybe when I retire I’ll have more time to put into music, which is my other passion. But my relationship with my wife and my relationship with my God determine what time is left for all else.
I said I’d get back to where kids fit in. Here’s how it works. When our kids needed more time, they got it. They still do. But any parent’s job is to launch their kids. Period. I do not plan on living forever, so I’d better have that piece in order. One is still a work in process, but I’m working on it. The worse thing I could do for my kids is to let them be dependent on me. They need to learn to fly, then fly the coop. There are no exceptions to this rule. What they have seen is my sense of priorities. Kids don’t learn to survive in the big bad world with helicopter parents, hovering over them, trying to protect them from their mistakes. In fact, they learn from their mistakes – or the mistakes of others. That’s what communities provide for our kids – the chance to learn how to get along in a world full of people with different values, different priorities, who may not care about them one bit. That’s reality and that’s where, sooner or later, our kids will have to live. Responsible parents get their kids ready for independent living, or, at least, for living apart from us. We make that happen because, by and large, our kids will outlive us. Being in communities – churches, schools, whatever – teachers them the hard lessons of how to get along, what not to say, etc., etc., etc. We are meant to be in community – We are NOT meant to be alone – or to depend on our parents. We need communities - such as church. Self-control is the key to faithful living, whether it is being faithful to my God or my wife or my family. My wife and my God are on a pretty even level. Our kids come next, but primarily as people we are responsible for getting started. If we fail in that, we have not been making decisions that are in their interest and need to re-visit that. Our main job as parents is to see to it that they become independent of us.
James says, “All of us do many wrong things.” No kidding, James. My wife wouldn’t argue with you. But, as pastor and teacher and husband and father, I have tried and continue to try to master myself, to be better at self-control by choosing my words more carefully, yes, but even more important, but choosing how to spend my time and talent and treasure.
And my main job as pastor and teacher? It’s to help you to build and maintain a community that lives together in the spirit of Jesus – which starts with respect and kind words and sometimes requires forgiveness, but always, always, always, requires self-control. What’s God’s love look like? Sometimes it looks like you biting your tongue. James would agree with that. Your self-control. Your sense of priorities. Your willingness to build relationships with each other that are more important than – oh, I don’t know – your connection to Tom Brady? Church is in many ways, a lot like marriage. It requires a significant commitment. If we can’t find significant and regular time for each other, church fails. Just like marriages.
We can be in the same room. But if our minds are elsewhere, it’s no better than being elsewhere. I don’t want to send that message to either my God or my wife. The message I DO want to send is this: Here I am, Lord. Same for the message I send my wife. Here I am, Deb. So church, here’s your takeaway.
When we are in worship, we are FULLY in worship.
When we are at work, we are FULLY at work.
When we are at home, we are FULLY at home.
Significant commitment starts with self-control. If I haven’t gotten that across, you need to find someone who can. Amen? Amen.