24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Not long ago, someone who doesn’t go to church asked me what I was preaching on that Sunday. I gave the answer I often give in situations like that, which is: how the Bible says, “Don’t be a jerk.” I like giving that answer for a couple of reasons: first, it’s kind of funny and a little self-effacing and shows that some Christians don’t take themselves too seriously. The other reason is that it’s likely to be true. Woven in between the message of the Good News of eternal life in Jesus Christ and what to do about that Good News is the message: “Don’t be a jerk about it.” The Bible may not put it that way, the point is in there. And chances are, whatever else I’m preaching on that Sunday, that point is at least implied.
It’s been more than “just implied” for us lately, as we take a tour through the Book of James. I mentioned at the onset that I think James is centrally a book about how to be the good kind of religious person. The obvious flip side of that is that it is possible to be the bad kind of religious person. I say “obvious” but perhaps it’s too obvious. It’s actually quite easy for us to be the bad kinds of religious people. So easy, in fact, that perhaps we need a sermon series on the Book of James from time to time to remind us who we’re supposed to be.
There’s a delicate balance between good religion and bad religion and the fulcrum point of that balance is right here in your mouth. James reminds us today that, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” We have, in our big mouths, the ability to proclaim the glory of our Risen Savior; or by the words we speak, we have the power to deny him as well. And while we’re at it, we may have some other body parts we’ll want to keep in check as well.
I was at a gathering of pastors not long ago, and one of them said something that made me laugh. She said, “Name another profession where everyone is your boss and everyone can critique you for anything at any time.” (Pastors can get a little overly sensitive sometimes.) I had an answer: “Celebrities! Celebrities are under that kind of scrutiny: what you do, what you wear, who you have relationships with, how your kids act; celebrities deal with the same stuff all the time. So if makes you feel better, just think of yourself as a celebrity.” Pastors do flip out sometimes, but by and large, you get used to it; the scrutiny makes you a better person; but I’ve got to tell you, it’s not for the faint of heart.
But there are other reasons for not becoming pastors, or as James puts it, “teachers.” Did you know that, according to my denomination, I’m not called a “pastor.” They don’t even refer to me as a “minister” anymore. No, a few years back they started calling me a “teaching elder.” So on Tuesday, the “ruling elders” will gather at a meeting, moderated by the “teaching elder.”
To be fair, when James says teachers will be “judged with greater strictness,” I think he’s talking about God’s judgment; but still, not a strong recruitment statement for pastors. The reason James gives for that stricter judgment from God: teachers saying the wrong thing. Well, duh. Of course we say the wrong thing, we remain unfortunately human. We all, as James says, make many mistakes. Of course church leaders (whatever you’re going to call them) are going to make mistakes, especially with what we say. There is a reason I write this out before hand; and even still, what I say isn’t always what I mean and may not be what you hear even if I say it right. As complex as the human language is, it’s a miracle we understand each other at all; and that’s when we’re being careful with the words we choose. So often, we don’t even do that; and we have all experienced what happens when our careless words strain and fracture relationships.
One of the most powerful metaphors that James uses today is “fire.” Fire, of course, has tremendous power; power for good and for bad. Where would we be without fire? We wouldn’t live here, I can tell you that. It’s not going to be very long from now that we will be using fire a lot. Fire keeps us warm; fire cooks our food; fire usually powers most of our cars; fire can even remind us of the presence of God [indicating the Christ Candle]. But, as we who live in this part of the world have been reminded of over the past few months, fire has the power to do tremendous damage as well.
Like our words, fire has the power of both. With our words we give praise to God. With our words, we proclaim the glorious news of our Risen Savior. With our words, we affirm the hope we have through him for life eternal. With our words, we extend his grace and mercy as we forgive one another as he forgave us. Our words are powerful things: they can shape the very world around us, bringing life and hope and peace.
And in the very same way, your words can burn this place to the ground. James says, “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.” Now that is a warning! If you love Jesus; if you love his church; if you love the people of this church, watch your mouth.
I’ve seen some things in my career; things I wish I could un-see. Things that might otherwise would be happy things for a church; but things that seemed to cause the place to just implode. Things like introducing new musical instruments to the worship service; things like rearranging the furniture; things like figuring out what to do with a large financial gift; good things that wound up figuratively burning the church to the ground. But of course, it is never the things themselves that set the place ablaze, it was always our words; it was what we said, it was how we said it, and to whom.
But it isn’t just our relationships here that we should be worried about; and frankly, it isn’t just our words that can set things ablaze. When I think about the damage Christians continue to do the image of Jesus, it breaks my heart. Scandal after scandal after scandal; when are we going to learn, the world is watching. We quibble and fret about how people (especially young people) don’t seem to want to go to church anymore. Really? When I hear about some of the things some so-called followers of Christ are up to, I’m not sure I want to go to church anymore.
We need James. We need the grace of God first, but we need James. We need James to remind us that the ways we practice our religion matter. They matter in our relationships with one another and they matter to the Gospel we proclaim; both with our mouths and with our lives.
I asked Sonja if I could retell a story she told me last Sunday. It’s not a story I want to tell, but it’s a story I need to tell. She was talking with a new friend over at the library a while back. As it should, the conversation turned to subjects of faith and religion. Her new acquaintance didn’t go to church, but had opinions about the churches in our area. Without revealing too much, Sonja asked, “So, what do you think about that Calvary church?”
She answered, “Oh, I hear good things about that church: they’re really involved in the community and they’re friendly. Oh, except for their pastor. I see him walking around a lot, and I wave and he never waves back.” Now if you know me at all, you know that is my nightmare; a nightmare that apparently has come true.
If you don’t know, I have a particular eye condition that leaves me functionally blind. That is, until about a year ago, when I got a new kind of contact lens. Now, I put them in in the morning, take them out at night, and I can just about see all day. For the first time in my life, I’m like a normal person. But that was a year ago; I’ve lived and walked around Bayfield for about a decade. I shared, right after getting my new contacts, that this is a friendly town. People wave at me all over the place. At the time I joked, “Have people always been waving?” Apparently, they have. Apparently, for nine years, I’ve been giving the impression to people who don’t really know me, that I’m a stuck up jerk. Thankfully, Sonja took the opportunity to explain my situation and hopefully redeem my reputation a little, but I can only hope that was an isolated incident. By the way, you know I was waving the heck out of people all week, right? I wore my shirt on Friday, just so I could be friendly to all the parents driving by after dropping off their kids. [Acts out pointing, waving, and smiling.]
I mention my nightmare coming true for a couple of reasons: first, if you ever meet anyone who thinks I’m a jerk (for whatever reason), please take a moment to try to salvage my reputation; like I would do for you (like I have done for some of you). But I also mention it, simply to remind us all, we tell the world about who we are as religious people, through more than just our words. Our words certainly do the most damage, but certainly our actions can convey all sorts of messages as well. Does that mean we will always be perfect? Of course not. But the good news is this: our words have great power to do good as well. We can, by our words, explain things. By our words, we can seek forgiveness. By the power of our words, we can glorify God and proclaim our salvation, as we restore the relationships our words have broken. Let us, by the power of God at work within us, make our Savior known in all we do and especially in all we say.