The Weight of Words

I’d like to begin today’s sermon by asking you to think about this question: “Who is the person you most trust in your life?”  For many of us this will likely be a spouse, family member, or very close friend.  When you consider what makes this person trustworthy or how you have come to trust them the answer is probably based on spending a significant amount of time with them.  The more time we spend with  someone, the more likely it is that we are going to exchange stories, anecdotes, theological views, and jokes. The average person speaks about 16,000 words per day and their choice of vocabularly really does show us the true character they hold.  As my Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor said during our class “the stories people choose to tell us about themselves reveal a great amount about who they are.  Who they are reveals a lot about their values and beliefs.”  Trust is not granted right away, it is something that needs to be earned and developed, and also which can be shattered in a matter of seconds.  Trust is something that builds slowly, but crumples quickly.  One of the biggest reasons why we may decide to no longer trust someone we once did is not only because of their actions, but also because of their words.  
In today’s passage from James 3, we learn all about the dangers of the tongue.  James writes that the tongue is one of the smallest parts of our body (in fact, the average human tongue is only about 3 inches long or the size of a ring finger) and yet it has the power to control and ultimately destroy friendships, marriages, careers and our reputation.  

The tongue is so influential in fact, that over 100 Bible verses are devoted to it with the power of words being one of the most sustained topics in all of the New Testament.  The power of speech is so crucial that the Bible actually gives us the following instructions and this is just scratching the surface: we should be slow to speak, we need to guard against careless words, we ought to answer one another graciously, we must seek to build up and encourage others rather than to tear down, and our words are to be seasoned with love.  Some Scripture passages take this even further though to show the true seriousness of verbal transgressions.  If we back up a few passages, James warns in 1:26 that the careless words can completely demolish one’s public faith witness, and in Proverbs Solomon tells us that “the more words that are spoken the more likely we are to transgress” (Prov. 10:19) and that “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21).  At first this may seem a bit of an over the top reaction, but sadly we know it to be true.  Verbal bullying has resulted in teens ending their lives.  Bullying can severely harm and damage the soul of an innocent child. 

For James, the way a person handles their words shows a great sign of spiritual maturity, and I believe this to be true.  If you have ever spent time with children, people with developmental disabilities, or the elderly who endure dementia, you likely know that when someone is not completely cognitively there that they often lack a filter.  They may sometimes say things which no one else would get away with. As a child grows up, they learn that some of their words and phrases are no longer culturally sensitive or appropriate and they learn that when they are angry, they cannot just lash out at someone and expect to get good results.  The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13 that when we were children we thought, acted, and behaved in the way a child does.  We spoke in baby language.  But as we become adults, we mature, and we learn to speak, act, and behave the way an adult does.  We must put away childish things if we are to grow more into the likeness and image of Christ.  

To put words into visual images, James gives us four different pictures to show how the tongue can be used for good or evil.   First, James says the tongue is like a bridle used for a horse.  This would have been an image that many in the ancient world connected to because they were used to seeing horses in military capacities. A wayward horse could really put an army operation at risk.  The second image used is the ship’s rudder – again a common form of transportation in that day. The third image is of a forest fire, and the fourth image is that of the body being corrupted through disease.  All four of these images share a few common threads – firstly, they all are means of control, secondly, they are small things which can grow and expand into destruction.  Yet, whereas the first two images: a horses bridle and a ship’s rudder are rather theoretical, the example of a forest fire is destructive.  In Canada 1 in 4 fires are caused by carelessness – even a small cigarette left unstamped can cause severe damage, a burner left unattended can bring damage to a kitchen, and an unattended ember left at the site of a campfire can quickly spread to greater extremes.  I love the way the Message version puts it, “by speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it.”  

The discussion continues when we consider the difference between humans and animals.  Humans are given a greater intellect, emotional capability, and spiritual yearning, but yet as Eugene Peterson writes in the Message, “You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame the tongue.” I liked this analogy that I came across as I was researching for this sermon.  When we were younger, many of us had to go for check-ups at the doctor’s.  One of the things the doctor did was to depress our tongue with a wooden stick and look inside our mouths.  Sometimes the doctor would even ask us to stick out our tongue (probably the only time we would ever get away with it).  A skilled doctor can tell a lot about our physical health just by looking at our tongues, and people can tell a lot about our spiritual health by the words we speak and the way we speak them.  

I can’t help but think as well that in this day and age social media and texting have become an extension of our tongues.  So much irreparable damage has been done in the heat of the moment through firing off an angry email or text or through posting something on social media without a second thought.  We may come to regret it later, but once something is said, it can never be taken back.  I used to do this activity with my Sunday School children where I took out a tube of toothpaste and squeezed as much out as I possibly could.  I would then ask the kids to try to put the toothpaste back into the tube.  Of course despite all their great ideas of how to do so, it remained impossible.  It is the same with our words.  Once they are out, the damage has been done.  

In the last part of this passage, James addresses a certain conundrum.  How is it that the tongue can be so inconsistent?  Such an enigma, so complex, and such a paradox?  Almost to the level of being an oxymoron?  It is the great mystery and puzzle of life that our tongue can be used for both good and for bad.  That our words can be both worshipful and wicked, our speech sacred or sinful.  James draws on this as a series of impossibilities: a fresh spring cannot produce salt water because a spring is to be pure, fig trees cannot produce olives, and a grapevine cannot produce figs.  As the Eugene Peterson writes in the Message, “you are not going to dip into a polluted mud hole and get a cup of cold, clear water, are you?”  It is the same for those who are living into God’s image.  When we are following God, we have a call for accountability.  Someone who delights in God cannot speak evil of someone else whom God delights in.  Words of racism, sexism, and classism have no role or function for them.  Someone who desires a heart like God’s conducts themselves in a way that values and esteems others providing them with dignity and worth.  Words are weighty and there is no better example than to point out that Hitler is often cited as one of the best speakers of all time along with Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr. And Mr. Rogers.  This just shows how words can so easily be used or misused to either inspire or harm the masses.  
People may pretend to be all sort of things.  When we first meet them they may try to convince us that they are someone they aren’t through sweet talk or impressive words, but eventually a person’s real character will always reveal itself.  Eventually a person can no longer keep up with the façade, and the let something slip which shows who they really are.  

This was the case in John Bunyan’s famous book “Pilgrim’s Progress.”  For those not familiar with this book, a pilgrim named Christian tries to find his way into the Celestial City (or Heaven) and encounters various traps and temptations on his way.  These temptations are all personified in characters.  One character he meets is named Mr. Talkative.  At first, Mr. Talkative appears to be very refined and informed, he speaks eloquently, even spouting off Christian Scripture and doctrine, yet his fake spiritual disciplines gradually get exposed and Christian discovers that “religion has no place in his heart, his house, or his conversation” all he is saying is mere noise without weight.  

At first this reflection may generally appear to be bad news. Hearing about how the tongue can harm can be quite distressing and alarming, and yet it is also a great conviction for us to consider our speech carefully.  Just as the tongue can be used to destroy, it can also be used to heal.  Our words can encourage and affirm another who is struggling to find their own path.  Our words can bring great inspiration and can even begin to cause positive change on major issues.  God has given us a voice for advocacy, reasoning, and guidance.  These positive attributes should never be forgotten in light of the damages we just discussed.  It is good for us to continually check on our spiritual heath through our words and to ask a few key people who we are close to to also help steer us in the right direction when we go astray.  
To conclude today’s sermon I would like to leave you with four resolutions that 18th century theologian and revivalist Jonathan Edwards left us with when it comes to speech.   

  1. Resolved, Never to say anything at all against anybody, but when it is perfectly agreeable to the highest degree of Christian honor, and of love to mankind, agreeable to the lowest humility, and sense of my own faults and failings, and agreeable to the golden rule; often, when I have said anything against any one, to bring it to, and try it strictly by, the test of this Resolution. 
  2. Resolved, In narrations never to speak anything but the pure and simple verity. 
  3. Resolved, Never to speak evil of any, except I have some particular good call to it. 
  4. Let there be something of benevolence in all that I speak. 

May God guide and direct us this week as we seek to honour one another through our deeds but also through our words seasoned with love, grace, mercy, tolerance, and acceptance.  May it be so.  Amen.  

The Synergy of Faith (Sermon from September 5, 2021 on James 2:14-26)

What image or attributes immediately come to mind when you think about living the Christian life?

The answer, may of course, profoundly vary depending on your own denominational upbringing and previous church experiences, yet they probably include some combination of the following: personal spiritual disciplines such as prayer and Bible reading, attendance and involvement at church, sharing our faith with those around us, and perhaps, most importantly, our acts of service.  

Bible reading and prayer are vitally important to a Christian’s life.  They are our toolkit and handbook for living in a way that pleases God, and yet, studies have shown over and over again that missional living and providing love and compassion to the vulnerable and marginalized is really what draws people into the church.  Think about it for a minute.  For those of you in this congregation who did not grow up attending a local church, what first drew you to Christianity?  Perhaps even to this specific church?

Many people first started attending a church not because they drove past a flashy billboard or because they were walking around the neighbourhood and noticed this interesting building one day.  Most people started coming around because they were drawn in by relationships. Every year people seem to stumble upon churches even if it’s only for something like accessing the food bank or getting a pair of clean jeans, but then they end up staying when they notice that the church is full of love and warmth and truly accepts them just the way they are.

This is a similar scenario to what we discover in the book of James.  James, the brother of Jesus and author of this epistle was writing to a group of Jewish Christians who had lost the soul of their faith.  Sure they were very devout and regularly practiced the laws and traditions which they considered important to them, but instead of making the congregants excited, they were simply going through the motions.  They were more concerned with acquiring their own wealth than in providing for the needs of poor.   In general, their actions were selfish and focused only on what would give them the greatest gain.  This then led to the believers being rather silent and inactive.  Their faith was rather passive.  Something akin to going to church and hearing a message but not letting it convict them.  Doing the bare basics to keep some connection to their faith, but not pushing themselves out of their comfort zone.

This is why James presents an interesting philosophical conundrum what works better: faith without works or works without faith?  In other words, what’s more important: God-talk or God-acts?

Let’s explore both of these possibilities and see what conclusion we can draw.  First we will look at the idea behind faith without works. Faith is very important.  The Bible repeatedly points out to us that faith is what ultimately brings us salvation, faith is a gift sent from God and given to those of us who will believe and receive it and salvation is not achieved through any actions that we do on our own merit.  

I remember back when I was 19 I went through a time in my life when my soul was often filled with anxiety.  Back then I believed that it was my own good deeds which would gain me entry to heaven.  I had many late night talks with my roomates at my Christian university who believed otherwise.  One day in desperation one of them told me to read the book of Ephesians for myself.  I got to Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace that you have been saved, and this is not of yourselves, it is a gift of God, lest anyone should boast.”  Reading this verse made all the weights fall off me like a ton of bricks.  I no longer feared for my eternal security.  I no longer worried if I was good enough for God.  I knew in that moment that God loved me and accepted me unconditionally, that God truly forgave any missteps and mistakes from my past.  My anxiety completely disappeared.  

This is the same for James, James is not telling us in this passage that our salvation is works based.  Our eternal status will stay the same whether we do good works or not.  He is not leading us into an unhealthy questioning of salvation.  However, James is still urging us to consider doing good to others, not because it will make God value us more, but because it will help us to mature in our faith.  It will help us to become more Christlike.  After all just one verse later in Ephesians 2:10 after we are given the assurance of our salvation, Paul writes, “for you are God’s handiwork created in Christ Jesus to do good works.”  It is part of our Christian mission to help others, and if we are truly wanting to follow the ways of Christ then it is hardwired in our DNA to search out ways to help anyone who is hurting. Furthermore, James shows that this type of service is continual.  It is not a one-off event, but it is something that all believers will joyfully return to again and again in their pursuit of pleasing God.

James uses a very concrete example in the story of a sibling who comes to the church in need of help only to be told to stay warm and well fed without any physical sustenance provided.  James asks a rhetorical question: “can such a faith save him?”  The answer is no.  The Bible might be food to our souls, but it is not the physical daily bread that we actually require to survive. Faith without works is dead and believing without doing anything is utterly useless.  We cannot get paid if we decide not to show up at work, we cannot expect to be fed if farmers just believe there will be a harvest without tending to the land, and we cannot presume that good deeds will be done just by virtue of our faith without the effort.

Now the second option that James presents to us is the possibility of works without faith.  At first this does not sound like too bad of an option.  After all, I am sure that we all know many people who are Atheists or Agnostics who are philanthropists, care about social causes, and are actively involved in their community.  Many of these Atheists still live very moral and upright lives and many of them still hold a desire to help others and to make the world a better place.  So then what is the difference between a Christian who is doing good works and an atheist who is also doing good works?

The difference stems from the place of motivation.  For a Christian, the motivation comes from wanting to extend the peace, justice and mercy of Jesus and ultimately to express their faith through works.  An atheist might also be driven by many good factors – a desire to right injustice, a desire to end oppression, or a wish to bring peace and harmony, but ultimately their motives only get them so far.  For an atheist, the most important thing is this world.  Any good deeds are done to make life on this earth more bearable and tolerable.  For a Christian, our values are eternal.  We do things because we want them to have a Kingdom Impact.

At first it can be easy to look at this picture as an either-or dichotomy.  Either we are faith based or we are works based.  Either we are more concerned with personal piety or with communal commitment.  And we definitely can point to many denominations which hold a preference of one over the other.  Sadly, these preferences have sometimes led to misunderstandings.  There are many people today who do not hold a high regard of the Evangelical church believing that their sole objective is simply to convert people and to maintain that there is only one way into heaven.  There are also sadly some Evangelicals who look down on social justice minded churches believing them to be more enmeshed with the ways of the world than with the Gospel of Christ.  Unfortunately, choosing one option as more vital and meaningful over the other only leads to further division and harm.  James’s answer lies not in making a choice or even meeting somewhere down the middle in a compromise, but rather in bringing faith and work together hand in hand and lifting both up as equally important in Gospel work.

For James, the height of Christ’s love stems from having an active and living faith.  Mere theology alone might be fascinating for some who wish to be scholars and students of religion, but without that practical piece can become cold, sterile and unfeeling.  Mere good works alone might be of interest to people who are given to activism and advocacy, but can also lead to burn-out, anger and even depression when one realizes that it is impossible to correct all wrongs.  James suggests that there is a third option – that faith and works are inseparable and that by combining the two, Christians will be able to have a truly energizing mission. The Greek work that is used in this combination is “Sunergeo” which to me sounds like synergy a word that the dictionary describes as “the interaction or cooperation of two or more agents producing a far greater effect than the sum of their separate effects.” On their own either faith or works would be very good things, but together they are powerful.  For James, belief is not merely given through intellect or conviction, but through action and love.

What does a living faith look like in our time?  Where do you see signs of hope springing up around you?

I see hope in the new job I started out of St. Thomas.  I now work for a Christian charity  which helps homeless and at-risk people transition from shelters to affordable housing.  Wrapping around our clients in love and offering support, we are able to help many people find their own purpose and value.  Where once they were not accepted and perhaps did not even feel loved, today they are experiencing new grace, freedom, and community.  We look beyond their past – beyond their addictions, mental wellness issues, or even their criminal offenses and we seek to pierce their hearts with connection and confidence.  Are all of our clients Christian?  No, many of them are not.  Will all of our clients become Christian?  Probably not.  We share our faith, but we do not force our faith.  However, my only hope is that even if the individuals we support never decide to align with any type of spiritual practices, that they will discover there is something unique about a Christian who loves because they have first been loved by God.

I saw this same hope when I was working as a student chaplain in inner-city Saskatoon.  The chaplains I worked with and myself tried to see beyond the gangs, drugs, and violence and to treat the person with the dignity of a beloved child of God.  Many of my patients told me at first that they were not Christian and had no interest in religion and just wanted to be left alone, but when they discovered that Spiritual care was more than just proselytizing some of them were happy just to have someone to talk and share with.  They left the hospital smiling and thanking us for  having invested in their stay.  Perhaps it got some of them to think about the faith of their childhood.  Perhaps some might make that journey back to the church one day.  But for now that’s not the point.  For now, they have left knowing that to be a Christian means to give and receive love.

This was the same type of living faith I saw this past Tuesday when I attended a drop-in church on the steps of Central United Church in Downtown Windsor.  A group of people whom society would probably deem as rag-tags and misfits discovered that they really do fit into the grand scheme of God’s plan and it was in a homeless man offering the minister hospitality in the form of a half-smoked cigarette that I truly saw the face of Christ.

It’s true that our upbringings, our temperaments, our own interests and values may drive us more towards faith or more towards work, but Christ’s life wants to draw us to the throne of love.  God’s compassion wants to draw us to the character of God.  God’s grace wants to draw us towards God’s generosity.  God is loving, accepting, and committed to each one of us and it becomes our joy to be loving, accepting, and committed to those that we will meet this week.  Our faith works not because we always do the right actions or say the right things, but because we give the Holy Spirit permission to work through us.  This week, I pray that we will be mindful of those who are in need of love, those who are in need of a home, and those who are in need of encouragement.  For when we offer hospitality to those whom society views as undeserving, we actually are giving directly back to Christ.  May it be so.  Amen.

Finding Christ in a Half Smoked Cigarette

See the source image
The Statue of the Homeless Jesus was first sculpted by Timothy Schmalz and installed at Regis College in Toronto. Similar statues have now been placed around the world.

On a Tuesday night in downtown Windsor, about a dozen people gather outside the old Central United Church – a building that has been there since 1904.  Chairs are out, some bring their walkers, and a boy around eight or nine eagerly greets all the “congregants” handing them out water bottles and a snack bag comprising of a banana, granola bar, and a pack of Bear Paws.  The church that runs this outreach is called “Lifeline” and they have been in the central core neighbourhood for the past five years or so.  

I arrive right at 6:30pm, and when I get there, I do not see any action – I only notice two visibly homeless men on the church steps smoking cigarettes and drinking beer.  I go up to them and dare to ask, “Is there anything happening here tonight?”  They look puzzled, unsure of what I am referring to.  One of them, the man who has been drinking a four pack of beer looks at me, “Whatcha mean darlin?”  “Like a meeting or something…” I query.  The man takes a stab at what he thinks I’m referring to, “You mean like AA?”  “Not quite” I counter, “something like a church service.”  They both shrug signifying they really do not know or care what I am looking for.  Finally, the other man who appears a bit more sober, tries his hand at sweet talking me.  “Beautiful lady,” he says not impolitely.  “I  love your shirt.  I love the roses on it.  Life is full of beauty.”  And I have to marvel in awe at how right he is.  A homeless man recounting gratitude in an age when most of us want more.  He suggests that the church service might be happening on the other side of the building, but admits he doesn’t know for sure.  I thank him for his directions and as I walk over to the other side I hear him yell out, “You’re so beautiful!”  

It is 6:35pm and finally I notice one of the gentlemen from the church carrying some chairs out, I offer to help him.  We set them up and then I notice another group of people are setting up the snack table.  We all settle in.  6:40pm.  The pastor strums a few songs on his guitar – some sacred, some secular, but all careful chosen for this occasion.

About six homeless folx and a few people from the church carefully watch the pastor with rapt attention.  A few more briefly stop to listen, grab a bag of goodies, and then head out on their way.  After a few songs, the pastor stops playing and puts down his guitar ready to offer a reflection.  Not a sermon, just a quick word of encouragement.  He is just getting into his talk about how Jesus accepts and loves everyone, when a homeless man who I will call “Barney” stops the pastor and very animatedly has his own conversation.  This is the same man I met earlier who was drinking the four pack.  The pastor gracious indulges him, before Barney says he will only leave once a song from the East Coast is played.  The pastor obliges him a bit later on.  For now, Barney’s attention has shifted to the goodie table where I see him talking to the others and trying to sneak a drink of the hand sanitizer.  

When the pastor is done sharing his message, Barney is back giving the pastor a litany of song requests.  The pastor is gracious, forming and building a relationship, not telling Barney to be quiet, but rather just honouring his presence as a beloved child of God.

Right as the service is nearing its end, a homeless man barges up to the front of the steps.  He has not been there at all throughout the service, but suddenly he finds a pause and he wants to do a good deed.  He hands the pastor a cigarette, which the pastor declines, but in that moment I see his gentle spirit of hospitality.  This homeless man does not take any of the snacks he was offered, he only wanted to help someone else.

I work in the homeless sector myself and sometimes it can be easy to imagine the reasons why someone is homeless.  Judgement sometimes triumphs over mercy rather than the other way around.  Yet, it was on this day, on the stairs outside an old imposing church, with the odor of body sweat and stale beer, that I truly saw God.  It was a sacred moment where those who occupied spaces of the high and low, those caught in the cycle of addiction and poverty and those willing to give back, all found themselves co-mingled together in God’s embrace.  I have attended many different churches and denominations over the years.  When I was in seminary, I was often required to visit churches which seemed unfamiliar and foreign.  I went to inner-city and rural churches.  I visited the Charismatics and the Catholics, the Pentecostals and the Presbyterians, the Apostolics and the Anglicans and I have always found a home.  Yet, it was on this day that church began to have different meaning to me.  It was on this day that I saw that church is not simply about what we preach, but about what we practice, and that sometimes Christ is found in a half smoked cigarette.  Sometimes devotion pours out from a drunken man, and sometimes trust is formed from the basis of trauma.