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Blessing and Cursing: Watch Your Words

September 16, 2012

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 16, 2012

 Mark 8:27-38          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.

Wow. “Every species of beast and bird, 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 both bless God and curse those who are made in the likeness of God.”

The Letter of James, as we have seen over the last couple of weeks, is full of practical wisdom for faithful living. It is an advice letter for those James calls his “brothers and sisters” and “my beloved.”[1] “Be both hearers and doers of God’s word; embody your faith in concrete work on behalf of others; do not cater to the rich who oppress you, nor pretend concern for the poor as a cover for your indifference; “pure” religion means meeting the needs of the poor, the orphaned, and the widow; bridle your tongue to avoid bragging, slander, grumbling, and other misuses of the tongue which destroy your community and which you use to destroy one another.” Like I said, practical advice.

In our passage today, James urges us to control our tongues and the types of speech that come from our mouths: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” This past week has been a vivid demonstration of how speech can ignite a [raging] inferno that no one person can extinguish.

On Tuesday, an attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi killed the US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Stevens was by all accounts “one of the most effective American envoys in the Arab world.”  According to one news report, “Stevens cheerily returned to Libya four months ago, determined to see a democracy rise where Kadhafi’s dictatorship had flourished for decades.”

President Obama said on Wednesday, “It’s especially tragic that Chris Stevens died in Benghazi because it is a city that he helped to save. . . . With characteristic skill, courage and resolve he built partnerships with Libyan revolutionaries and helped them as they planned to build a new Libya.”

The attack happened during protests over a film that mocked the Prophet Muhammad and was promoted by Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who two years ago sparked deadly violence by threatening to burn Qurans on the anniversary of Sept. 11. The 14 minute film was uploaded to YouTube and was the target of protests outside the consulate even before it was raided. Whether the film was the spark or the pretext for the killing of Stevens and others, the film has now generated protests in Yemen, Sudan, Tunisia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Jerusalem, Kuwait and Iraq, with continuing protests in Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria, some of which were violent and included powerful anti-American slogans. “Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had tried to pre-empt the violence a [on Thursday] by saying the rage and violence aimed at American diplomatic missions was prompted by an inflammitory and despicable video that “we had nothing to do with.” Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi went on national TV and appealed to Muslims not to attack embassies. But more died in violent incidents on Friday.

And the tongues kept wagging.

* Pat Robertson on his television show Wednesday said that Muslims turn to violence because they cannot defend the tenants of their faith. They just ‘go crazy’ when offended because they have “the spirit of a wild donkey” within them.

* Though we now know that the film was made by a small group of extremist Coptic Christians, who lied to everyone involved in creating the film; all involved claim to be astonished at the political impact on their speech.

* And though through weeks of anti-Muslim violence we have reminded ourselves not to link Islam and terror, the investigative media coverage into the origins of the inflammatory film, with titles like “Copts behind Anti-Muslim Film”, has created a need for Egypt’s 8 million Coptic Christians, and the United States’ 300,000 member Coptic community, to remind us that being Coptic Christian and a bigot is not the same thing.

* And then we have presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s comments about the deadly violence in Bengahzi where he blamed President Obama for sympathizing with the attackers.  I feel I am on safely non-political ground in noting that Peggy Noonan, celebrated Republican speechwriter and political analyst, commenting on Mitt Romney’s response, said, “I was thinking as he spoke, I think I belong to the old school of thinking that in times of great drama and heightened crisis, and in times when something violent has happened to your people, I always think discretion is the better way to go.” She continued, “Sometimes when really bad things happen, when hot things happen, cool words or no words is the way to go.”

James encourages us to train our tongues not only for the good of our communities but because our speech reveals our deepest motives and values, be they blessings or curses. Fresh water and foul cannot both emerge from a pure spring, writes James. Olives do not emerge from fig trees, nor figs from olive trees. God’s beloved children cannot curse and destroy while claiming to love God and neighbor.

We don’t need to look far to see the truth of these words.

A student that I had in my confirmation class about six years ago wrote me a letter on Tuesday and posted it on my facebook page.

Something I thought I’d share with you, as I feel it would have made for a great conversation with you back in the day:

A group of “Christians” protested at my school today. Essentially, they used the Bible to justify their hatred towards homosexuals. This got me thinking about something that has been bothering me a lot lately. With so many instances of people citing their Christian beliefs as justification for their violence, discrimination, and hate, I feel that many people misunderstand what it means to be Christian. Which got me thinking, what does it mean to be Christian?

Obviously, Christian is derived from the Latin term for “follower of Christ”. So, following a literal interpretation, we can say that a Christian is one who follows Christ. But what does it mean to follow Christ? Really, the main records on Jesus Christ are in the Gospels. One of the things I personally enjoyed about my Confirmation class was how we went through one of the Gospels, hitting each important event, and treated it like a story. Throughout the story, we have Jesus challenging conventions; interacting with and helping those ordinarily shunned, using nonviolent protests to fight injustice, etc. As we move through the story, we see Jesus through the eyes of his disciples, a group of men who believe he is the Christ, following him and listening to his teachings and observing his actions to find out if he is indeed the Christ (as he never really gave a straight answer). I believe the disciples also found motivation to follow him in their curiosity, as none of them knew what Jesus’ motives were.

Naturally, as one walks around challenging convention and the way things are, Jesus finds himself facing a growing opposition. This opposition creates a rising action which brings us to our climax at the Last Supper. It is at this point of the story that Jesus, for what seems like the first time, is straightforward and share exactly what he is thinking. Found in John 13:34, he gives the disciples one last commandment: to love one another as Jesus loved them. This, at the climactic moment, is what I believe to be the single most important part of the story. This is why he helped those seen as less than a person, why he shared what he had with those who needed it, why he consorted with thieves and slaves.

Jesus loved unconditionally, and this I feel is the central tenet to Christianity. This is what it means to call yourself a follower of Christ. To love one another as Jesus loved us. This is why I am disgusted when people justify their hatred and violence with their beliefs. Everyone has the right to believe what they want. You are more than welcome to believe that God hates those who are different from you. But if you do so, you are not Christian, and to call those beliefs Christianity is a lie to yourself and everyone around you.[2]

James could not have put it any better.

As Secretary Clinton said Thursday, defending free speech does not mean defending the speech – we can abhor it, we must” she said, and then called people of all faiths to “work towards building a world where if one person commits a violent religious act, millions of people will stand up and condemn it”: “We can pledge that whenever one person speaks out in ignorance and bigotry, ten voices will answer,” Clinton said forcefully. “They will answer resoundingly against the offense and the insult; answering ignorance with enlightenment; answering hatred with understanding; answering darkness with light.”

And in the midst of uncalibrated speech, careless speech and hateful speech this week, we have heard other speech as well.  That kind of speech that upholds the dignity of all people.  That kind of speech that reminds us that extremist rhetoric does not characterize the relations or aspirations of millions of people around the world.  We heard hopeful speech too this week – speech I think James would approve of.

Maya Angelou spoke out this week. “I’m grateful to be an American,” she said. “I am grateful that we can be angry at the terrorist assault and at the same time be intelligent enough not to hold a grudge against every Arab and every Muslim.”

On Wednesday, across Libya, thousands of Muslim women and men gathered in peaceful witness, holding signs for the world to read. On the signs were words like these:

“Chris Stevens was a friend to all Libyans.”

“Thugs and killers don’t represent Benghazi nor Islam.”

“Sorry people of America. This is not the behavior of our Islam and Prophet.”

“R.I.P. Chris Stevens.”

What is my point and James’s point? Several times last year I suggested that an apt summary of the third commandment, “Do not use God’s name in vain” might be “Watch your words.” In your family, in your workplace, in our church, and in our world, watch your words. Watch your words. Think always: bless, do not curse.  Amen.


[1] Margaret Aymer Oget, “Introduction to the Letter of James” in The People’s Bible. (Fortress Press, 2008).

[2] C. T. to Jeffrey Geary, September 11, 2012.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 17, 2012 12:07 pm

    Wonderful sermon. Thank you for your perfect response to a week filled with difficult words. I especially loved the letter from your former confirmand – what a joy to know you had so much to do with an understanding of following Jesus we can laud and be proud of.

    • September 17, 2012 12:31 pm

      Thanks Julie. I appreciated your sermon as well. The quiet after-conversation was a great image which captured so well what we share inside and fear vetting outside. Blessings abound.

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