With Many Words – Lectionary 09/12/2021

James 3:1-12

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For 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. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or 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. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And 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. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

Sermon Text

           To speak is to wield a deadly weapon. Our tongue is an implement sharper than any sword and its reach stretches far beyond its simple frame. To open our mouth ant to pass air through our larynx is to make a large move toward either goodness or evil. No pitfall is dug more quickly than the one we dig with idle talk, and no mess is harder to clean up after than the mess left in the wake of hurtful words.

The dangers of speech should be plain to us. James spares nothing in how harshly he expresses their effects here. More than just what we have read, we should see how much of our own lives are consumed in the outcome of words. The serpent in Eden did not conquer us through force, but by a few spare words. The pages of a few telegrams were enough to launch a world war. Marriages end, friendships crumble, and even Churches fall when we let our words get way from us. Though actions speak louder than words, it is the multitude of our words that ultimately sinks us. Perhaps that is why Jesus taught us as he often did, not only in simple parables, but in admonitions against wordiness.

To our tendency to tell tall tales and make false promises, Jesus forbids oath taking (Matt. 5:33-37.) The words we speak are lifted up as one of the fruits of either a good or bad life (Matt 12:33-37.) The Lord’s prayer is taught to us so that we do not overcomplicate our prayers, but keep them brief, earnest, and to the point (Matt. 6:7-8.) Jesus builds upon a wealth of wisdom from scripture to make clear time and time again that we are to guard our tongue. It is, perhaps more than any other tool we use in life, the most closely linked to our heart – for good or for ill. The things we say, and how we say them, matter.

There is a tendency for us, when we begin to study passages that speak about how evil roots itself down into our hearts, to respond in one of two ways. Either we direct its lessons outward and try to attack others or we over emphasize our own fallenness to the point of absurdity. The former looks like the impulse many of us likely had as I read our scripture. This impulse take the form of a long list that populates the moment we hear about gossips and people who speak carelessly. We think of them with a dismissive chuckle and thank God we are not nearly so sinful.

The second impulse is antithetical to the first, and more subtle in its danger. We sometimes hear of the wickedness of our heart and decide that we must be completely evil as a result. We decide that, since we are really so dirty and sinful, then there is no meaning to us trying to be good, and all that matters is that we can acknowledge how bad we really are. Yet, the reality sits somewhere between these two ideas. In every person is both good and evil, two trees that feed off of very different streams. As se inspect our own souls, we cannot presume either tree is greater than the other, but we must seek the truth honestly.

The difference between appearing to have found the truth and actually living into is demonstrated, I think, by a Facebook post I saw long ago. The author was responding to someone else they did not name, about how foolish it was to try and be “authentic.” They described what it would mean if they were authentic in their thoughts and feelings. The listed about how they would yell at people who made them angry, that they would tell people they looked ugly when they asked how he liked their hair, and that he generally would be vicious to anyone and everyone he met. To be authentic, he argued, was to be cruel, and we were better off pretending than acting in a way consistent with our hearts.

In a way, he was correct. It is better to not say something cruel even if we think it. However, I hope we can see in his self-examination, an example of something that straddles both extremes of our less productive responses to our own sinfulness. On one hand, the author successfully identified that he was a mean person, and so living into the meanness would be more hurtful than it would be helpful. However, his conclusion was not then that he should change that disposition of his heart, but instead pretend it did not exist. Thus, he could triumphantly say those arguing for “authenticity,” were the real fools, because lies alone preserved society.

We must be more nuanced in our self-examination. Everyone here is a sinner, myself included. Yet, no person here is completely evil, myself included. We all have good and we have bad, the good which God grows within us and the evil we have grown up ourselves. If we are honest when we look in the mirror, we will not think too highly or too lowly of ourselves, but honestly assess both our strengths and our weaknesses. Returning to the idea of “authenticity,” the authentic Christian is not someone who tries to be the best version of who they presently are but is constantly in a state of becoming. We are presently both good and bad, but we must seek to be more good and less bad as time goes on. This goodness and badness is something, again, which we must see in how we speak just as much if not more than how we act.

It is appropriate to draw my example from Facebook, because social media is where much of our daily conversation happens these days. Not just on Facebook, but on Twitter and Tiktok, and to a lesser extent Snapchat and Instagram, we are constantly broadcasting speech to the world. It is in these places that we see ourselves in our most idealized and raw states. On one hand the keys on our phones and laptops give us distance to manicure an image. Our photos can be of us and our things at our best lit and most put together.

We share and write posts that put forth an image of who we hope people see us to be. Contrarywise, that same distance makes those we disagree with seem unreal. Suddenly, the well manicured image we have made disappears as we remove the mask to yell at strangers across cyberspace.

Entire online industries depend on this outrage. Videos of one person “destroying,” another are shared with incredible ferocity. We love to see our opponents humiliated by people we agree with. Every comment and share is an affirmation of the violence which our words work in the world around us. I think that much of the perception which people, especially older people, have of a more sensitive world is actually an acknowledgement of a more aggressive one. Our words cut deeper, our actions that follow likewise are intensified. We go for the jugular of one another the moment the chance presents itself, often to the harm of all parties involved.

These issues are not limited to violent or cruel language, abut also to dangerous falsehoods. Lies spread quickly these days and the faster they fly the harder it is to untangle or stop them. Sometime last year in the midst of one of the many popular scandals that was flying around, I had a loved one say something to me that I knew was untrue, but that I could not satisfactorily debunk at the time. Digging into the matter took me several hours. In that time I found the original quote that was then misquoted elsewhere, then misrepresented somewhere else, that was then lied about in yet another place.

By the time I knew the cause of this lie, I had a full plate of evidence. Yet, in that time those lies solidified in the mind of my relative, they were now part of their worldview. No amount of evidence could change that.

This weekend we observe a solemn remembrance of the September 11th attacks. Much has changed in the two decades that have passed since then. Most striking of all is the change in how we speak of things, sometimes for good and often for bad. I think that our response, literally how we talked about the attacks and what followed, has revealed a great deal about ourselves. To articulate what I mean a bit more concretely, I want us to look at a medium most of us can relate to on some level – namely country music. Though I am personally more a fan of alt-rock and metal, I am too much a West Virginian to not have some affinity for Alan Jackson and Reba.

Alan Jackson is one of the musicians to respond to the tragedy with his song, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning.)” The song is a ballad that captures how it felt to live in a world that suddenly changed faster than anyone could respond to. It captures feelings of sorrow and anger and fear, but it rests on a thoughtful refrain asking us to really think about what it means to live in a world that has been shattered. The other song that was archetypal of our speech following the attacks was Tobey Keith’s, “The Angry American.” Keith had written a battle hymn that dreamt of a fiery revenge against America’s enemies, and glorified those attacks that had already been launched against Iraq and Afghanistan. These two responses capture a variety of valid emotions, but one is rooted in thoughtfulness and carefully chosen words, and the other puts emotions before anything else. For myself personally, twenty years later having only the slightest sense of a world before the attacks, I take much more from Jackson’s words than I do Keith’s. In particular, it is Jackson who quotes scripture, saying that though he knows nothing else, he knows, “Faith, hope and love, are some good things [God] gave us, but the greatest is love.”

Despite my own predilection, I think Keith and his style has won out in modern country and in our disposition as culture. We are more combative than ever and Country music, and indeed most genres of music, now are confrontational when they are not vapid. There is much to critique in Country music, and in rock and pop and any other kind, but perhaps the most distressing thing our musical tastes show is our continued willingness to fight with one another. Though Keith wrote “The Angry American,” about revenge, his later songs were more pointed towards those he disagreed with generally. That tone, dismissive at best and violently oppositional at worst, defines how we speak to one another. Exacerbated by tragedy, our words have torn each other apart more and more over the years.

Before I pontificate on “cultural issues,” or become just another minister complaining about “today’s music.” I want to return to more obvious ways words affect us, but looking at a case study of when my own words got me into a bit of trouble. Once a dear friend of mine and I had a falling out because of five words I spoke without thinking. I was working at WVU, sitting at the Bennett-Lyon residence hall desk, and after a few hours on duty a coworker came down to speak with me. After a bit of back and forth, she shared concerns that my friend was mistaking her friendliness for romantic interest. I shook my head and told her not to worry because, “He thinks everybody loves him.”

Fast forward almost a year. My friend decides to ask a different woman we worked with if she has feelings for him, afraid that she was going to be hurt when he did not reciprocate. She snapped back at him for this. In her response to his question she said that she had heard about him, and the fact that he “thought that everybody loves him.”

It did not take long for him to track those words back to me, and he was rightfully angry. He did not speak to me for several months after that, an impressive feat because we lived in the same building and worked together. The silence broke when he asked me to help him at a food bank. We went and worked and, on the way back, he said this to me (slightly edited to avoid colorful language.) “John, there are a lot of crappy people in this world, but I guess you are one of the least crappy.”

These words, backhanded as they were, began the process of healing. Several months would pass before our friendship looked even passingly like what it once was all the same. The story, unfortunately, does not end especially well. We both went on to separate callings, moved away and fell out of touch. Distance and circumstance worked into the cracks of what we had rebuilt and pushed apart the ruins into nothing. I still think of him, and a few others I’ve hurt in my short life, and the weight of what was and could have been sits heavy in me.

The image of fire that James uses is appropriate because when fire burns a forest down, the same trees that burned are seldom what grows back. When we speak without thinking, we hurt others with wounds we cannot just take away with apologies or gifts. The damage is done and even if the earth should heal, something else must grow in the place of what once was. Our words matter because they are deadly in a way weapons could never be. Lies, insults, even just inconsiderate speech, these all burn away the bonds of love faster than anything else ever could.

What then is our cure? Can there be hope for us? There is always hope, hard won though it may be. Firstly, we must be honest about the damage our words have caused in the past. If we confess our sins before God and one another, we can identify the wounds they have caused.

Next, we must not simply ask for forgiveness, but offer penance for the wrong we have committed. How can we trust those who have hurt us? By seeing them prove they are committed to repairing the damage and healing the relationship that was severed. Absolution is only complete when the damage that was done is healed to the satisfaction of those who were wronged. Sometimes that means things go back to how they were, sometimes that means that they must sadly end, and sometimes that means something new and in-between must take that place.

As a confessed sinner by way of my words, I must acknowledge how James begins our passage. Not all should be teachers, for we are held to much higher standards, and we should be. As your minister, I seek in all things to speak truly, but also kindly and considerately. If I ever breach my responsibility to any of these callings, keep me honest. If you do not wish to speak to me directly about something I have said or done, go through the PPRC, they exist to mediate such trouble. While I strive in all things to be compassion, considerate, and to listen more than I speak, I still a sinner with a speech impediment dependent on God’s mercy. Correct my wrongs.

If we do this together, then we will see growth. If you keep me in line, I’ll try to the same for you. We all must work together to grow, to mind our tongues, and to learn to bless rather than curse. We must reach out to one another and to the world with love and peace on our lips more often than anything else. We will still fight, we will still disagree, but we can do so with love and respect for one another.

That respect means honoring one another feelings, opinions, identities, and backgrounds. That love means seeking one another’s good above self-interest and self-satisfaction. We must avoid petty fights, because we all must agree, it is easier to prevent a fire from happening than try to put it out. Let us seek together to be better in controlling our words and through this exercise together let us someday learn how to perfect every aspect of our conduct toward one another. – Amen.

A Table Set for All – Lectionary 09/05/2021

James 2: 1-17

            My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

James 2: 5-7, 14, 17

5. ἀκούσατε ἀδελφοί μου ἀγαπητοί οὐχ ὁ θεὸς ἐξελέξατο τοὺς πτωχοὺς τῷ κόσμῳ πλουσίους ἐν πίστει καὶ κληρονόμους τῆς βασιλείας ἧς ἐπηγγείλατο τοῖς ἀγαπῶσιν αὐτόν

6. ὑμεῖς δὲ ἠτιμάσατε τὸν πτωχόν οὐχ οἱ πλούσιοι καταδυναστεύουσιν ὑμῶν καὶ αὐτοὶ ἕλκουσιν ὑμᾶς εἰς κριτήρια

7. οὐκ αὐτοὶ βλασφημοῦσιν τὸ καλὸν ὄνομα τὸ ἐπικληθὲν ἐφ᾽ ὑμᾶς

14. τί τὸ ὄφελος ἀδελφοί μου ἐὰν πίστιν λέγῃ τις ἔχειν ἔργα δὲ μὴ ἔχῃ μὴ δύναται ἡ πίστις σῶσαι αὐτόν

17. οὕτως καὶ ἡ πίστις ἐὰν μὴ ἔχῃ ἔργα νεκρά ἐστιν καθ᾽ ἑαυτήν

Sermon Text

 Preference is a dangerous word. I have many things in life I prefer over another thing. I prefer my coffee sweetened with cream, or in the case of espresso, cut with just a little milk. I prefer the BBC and NPR to other news sources. I prefer hot mix pepper to sweet. All these simple statements of “This, more than that,” make up the basic inclinations of a person’s life. It is natural to develop predilection, but it is also one of the most dangerous tendencies of a person’s soul. This is often the case, something natural and even good can easily become twisted. Beatitude and curse living shoulder to shoulder.

The preferences with which we mark out our life are meant for these small things. They become dangerous if they go beyond the way or substance of how things are done or made and become the feelings we have toward people or groups. Preference is the word we use for things, but the only English work that can convey the same idea toward people is prejudice. Partiality toward one group over another, if it goes beyond matters of taste or honest disagreement, can only be negative. If nothing else, partiality for one thing is nearly impossible to exist without animosity for another.

This does not mean there will not be natural things that endear some people more quickly to us than others. The nature of friendship is often found in a moment of realization which C.S. Lewis captures in saying, “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…”[1] Shared interests, similar backgrounds, all manner of life experiences, all of these can start us off on a better foot with those around us. The end result of that initial impression is a jumpstart to relationships, it is the ability to hit it off with people we can relate to. It is, all the same, another dangerous precipice of a gift we are given. The allure of people who are too like us creates insular communities; we become unsure how to reach out because all around us are mirrors reflecting our own views backward.

Next month we will look into some of our more destructive habits associated with the preference we show toward certain groups as we celebrate World Communion Sunday. Today, we look at one of the more subtle ways we contribute to prejudice in life – namely, through our tendency to show preference to those who have something to offer us and our ambivalence or outright distain for those with nothing to give us. This is what James highlights directly in our scripture and what we, 2,000 years later, have not gotten much better at rejecting it now than we were then. Our preferences in much of life are rooted in self interest and none are clearer than our preference for the “right,” sort of people.

The early church was initially a group made up almost exclusively of the poor. The disciples were all poor by birth or by choice, and while it did not take long for some well-to-do individuals to join their ranks, the central identity of the Church was impoverished, marginalized, and powerless. As time went on this make-up fluctuated back and forth. While the poor made up the bulk of membership throughout history, the leadership of the church shifted into higher socio-economic levels. This disparity could be remedied by humble ministers and elders, but it had a definite impression on the culture of the Church.

Lest we let ourselves see this development as a purely systemic problem of the church, I invite us to turn back to James and his words, just a handful of decades after Jesus’s ministry. James looks at his audience and sees them giving preferential treatment to the rich in their community. These are not just wealthy church members, but anyone in the community with wealth and power. James points out, bluntly, that the well connected and well off are the same people who actively persecuted the church. Those who were given the place of honor at a Sunday brunch were the same people to litigate the church at the next civil court date. The people of God were chasing after the powerful, the wealthy, and the influential because they saw something “in it,” for them.

Perhaps, I am not being generous enough to our first century siblings. There were likely those in the early church who saw their neighbors with influence as good people to have on their side. Money can pay for a lot of things, filling bellies and providing for those without. Similarly, a high rolling community member joining the Church could solve some troubles of reputation. A local politician or businessperson would normalize Christianity for more people and in a way distinct from others with fewer connections.

These inclinations, though rooted in good intent, ultimately betray those who get out to act upon them. Firstly, wealth and power corrupt more than they heal. To chase after the rich and see them as a means to an end is to invite them to rule over the Church, to recreate society within sanctuary. Power enables those who have it to pursue what they want, and all but the strongest people can resist that. Beyond any negative impact these good intentions might have, to chase after the approval of the rich in this way, ultimately objectifies them. They cease to be people and become line-items; we fail to expand a community in exchange for refining a program.

This all played out on a grand scale in the fourth century when the newly crowned Emperor Constantine legalized all religions in the empire and especially elevated Christianity. Though never fully converting, the emperor gave fortunes to the church, his Christian mother traveled the empire to collect relics, and he gave bishops room to speak in the public square. He was even the one to call the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council since Jerusalem and the moment that marked an imperial Christianity that was intimately tied to money and power.

We today live in a waning period in the history of the Church. As religiosity largely decreases and the size of churches stagnates, we must go back to basics and ask, “What went wrong?” If we look at some of the most common reasons given for people leaving the church, we will see no small part of our troubles coming from who we have shown partiality toward. Since Constantine, and perhaps even before, we have looked to power and money and seen them as the way out of our troubles. We say, “If we only had a bit more money,” or “If only I was the one in charge.” We take these “what ifs,” and pursue them through worldly means.

The purpose of the Church is not to be in charge. Nor to have a great deal of money. It is to “[preach the] pure word of God… and [to see] the sacraments duly administered,”[2] and to gather all the world together in service to one another. Does this sometimes require interacting with secular authority? Yes. Does it require money? Of course! However, neither of those are to consume our focus. They are only truly important to us as they augment our mission. We cannot bring heaven to earth by inviting the ways of the world into the Kingdom of God.

James lays out the situation we find ourselves in plainly. When we deny a spot at God’s table for the poor and those who can offer us nothing in exchange for those who have money and means, we are sinning through prejudice. When we look into our community and see liabilities, strangers, and expenses rather than our siblings, we sin through our lack of moral vision. When our only hope is to stumble upon a wealthy donor to magic away our troubles, we sin through idolatry as blatant as any Asherah.

The truth is that the Church has been trying to be a political organization on one hand and a business on the other for too long. While we must be efficient, responsible, and transparent in our administration of the local church, we must not see it as anything but a mission center of Christ. Here work is done, and people prepared for the Kingdom, little else matters than that. Likewise, though members of a church must be active in politics so as to promote the common good, we are not a partisan institution. Neither should we strive to dominate through legislation when the Spirit provides more power than Babel ever could.

By posturing itself as the worst parts of society, the Church in America has fallen from grace alongside those other pillars. We don’t trust those in political office, nor the Church that often serves their interests in an attempt to gain favor. We don’t trust businesses, they only want to make money, not even usually to render an honest service. The American Church, not quite a political lobby and not quite a business empire, has suffered as much as either in recent decades.

Yet, hope remains. In the same way we as individuals are never beyond God’s grace, so to is the Church universal never broken beyond repair. We have to push beyond where we currently stand into new territory. What would it look like if we privileged the poor around us over the rich among us? What if we, blessed with abundance as we are, truly gave all we could to those who struggle around us? What if the mission of the Church was centered once more on feeding and doing and moved away from simply thinking and praying? A truly alive faith does the work of God wherever the Spirit calls and the Spirit calls from every empty cupboard and rundown house around us.

James asked a difficult thing of his audience all those centuries ago and the same hard work is still in front of us. Can we ignore what people have for us and instead simply see them as they are? The discomfort this lodges in our gut is rooted in a simple realization. The journey from well off church goer to just another person seems like a much further drop to us than we imagine it would elevate those who are unlike us. We see ourselves standing on mountains and all other people standing in deep valleys. Yet, James offers us a means to get over this perceived inequality.

In the midst of his petition for the people to cease their privileging of the rich, James goes on a quick tangent to discuss how judgment and mercy interact in God’s economy of Grace. James says that partiality is a sin in violation of love of neighbor. To sin in this way equalizes us with any other transgressor. This is said, not to excuse the villain, but to convict the saint. We may see ourselves as greater than the least of these, but as James puts it, God has chosen the poor to be heirs to the Kingdom. We are no better than the needy and in truth, we must step down from the crude throne we have made for ourselves if we wish to draw near to the throne God has made among them.

We prepare now to share in the table of God’s grace. Hopefully, the full weight of its observance sits upon us now. We prepare to take thin wafers and sour juice and see in it the body of Christ. We will leave this place invigorated by the Spirit to be the body of Christ. The real test of our faith will be in how we live out our life in the time from now till we next take part in this meal. Will we have seen the face of Christ in those around us? Will we invite them in to sit beside us at this table, not for want of attendance or tithes, but to fulfill God’s will and turn the kingdom over to those it is promised to? The table is set for all, let us see to them receiving not only their invitation, but their full due. – Amen.


[1] C.S. Lewis. The Four Loves.

[2] The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church. Article XIII