Wednesday, June 28, 2017

June 25, 2017 Music of the Heart: I Am My Brother's (and My Sister's) Keeper

This morning we begin a four-part series of messages titled Music of the Heart, in which each message is based on a song.  I appreciate all the suggestions that I received after church last Sunday about possible songs for the series.  Some of them were good, others a bit questionable, so no, I won’t be using Achy Breaky Heart.  I’m only going to do four messages, but as I have received so many good suggestions I will most likely return to this idea at some time in the future.

All of us have our favorite songs and favorite genres of music, and we probably have a lot of variety in what we like – and what we don’t like – so I hope you’ll be patient with my musical selections if they are not ones that appeal to you.  Being a child of the 60s and 70s, I grew up a rock and roller.  I was one of the many, many Baby Boomers who decided to learn to play guitar after seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show.  I have played in bands for years and still prefer my music on the loud side of the spectrum. 

I am old enough to remember the advent of Christian rock music, and also remember when that genre of music was very controversial.  Many churches opposed Christian rock music, books were written in condemnation of it, and many Christian bookstores would not carry those type of records (at that time, Christian bookstores were the only place it was possible to purchase Christian music).  I was often criticized for having my foot in both those musical worlds – the Christian and the secular worlds.  Some of my church associates were critical of me for playing in rock bands but I always kept my foot in both worlds, and continue to do so.  I enjoy playing and listening to rock and roll, but I also love hymns and praise and worship music as well.  To this day, I still do not understand why some people think I should have to make a choice between those types of music.

The first “Christian” album I purchased was Sail On by The Imperials, in 1978.  It was the first of many Christian albums that joined my collection alongside the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Eagles, Pink Floyd and others. As I said last week, I believe all things are sacred, and while we often make a distinction between sacred and secular music, I believe music is in and of itself sacred.  There are songs that do not carry a “Christian” label that convey very important truths and spiritual lessons, and that is why I purposefully chose the songs I did for this series.

The song for this morning’s message is by The Hollies, and is He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother  (we were careful to select this track from the CD to play before the service began.  I wanted to make sure we didn’t play the track Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress, but if we had, I guess we could have talked about the story of Rahab), and the title of the message is I Am My Brother (and My Sister’s) Keeper.  Our Scripture text is the very familiar story of Cain and Abel, from Genesis 4:2b-12 –

2 Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.
In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord.
And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering,
but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?
If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
10 The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.
11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

There is so much in this passage that we could cover this morning.  This is one of the foundational stories of all Scripture, I believe, and it bears testimony to what I often say when we are studying passages from the Old Testament.  I know a lot of people believe the Old Testament is not interesting and that some of it seems irrelevant, but nothing could be further from the truth.  There are so many profoundly rich stories in the Old Testament, and the story of Cain and Abel is certainly one of them.
When we talk about being our brother’s – and our sister’s – keeper, there are many things we can, and perhaps should, talk about.  Time constraints, however, requires that I focus in more specifically, so this morning I want to concentrate on the core of this story, which is that act of violence that Cain commits against his brother Abel.

I will say three things about this passage this morning, and the first is this –

1.  Good and Evil War Within Each of Us.
During Vacation Bible School last week, I took notice of something in the kitchen.  Many of you are familiar with my love of chocolate, and it did not escape my notice that a very large, unopened, bag of M&Ms sat on the kitchen counter all week.  I waited patiently for someone to open that bag so that I could have some of those M&Ms, but no one did.  Finally, on Thursday, I could stand it no longer.  As it was the final night of VBS I was certain that bag would be opened, so I walked into the kitchen at regular intervals, in hopes of begin able to reach into that bag and get a handful of candy.  It remained unopened.  Finally, in an act of desperation, I asked, so what’s the deal with this bag of M&Ms?  Are they going to be used?  Sue then informed me she had brought them to be used in a treat but did not need them, but if I wanted to open the bag I was welcome to do so.  I did not need a second invitation, and immediately ripped open the bag. 

It may be a small analogy, but all week I worried about that bag of candy, and it seemed to exert some kind of control over me.  It was only a bag of candy, fortunately, but if a bag of M&Ms can occupy my mind, and if the pull to that bag can be so strong, what am I supposed to do when there is a much larger, more significant struggle that takes place inside of me?

All of us – yes, all of us – have within us a battle between good and evil, darkness and light, and righteousness and unrighteousness.  We all sense that struggle, and Paul sums up that struggle in a masterful way as he writes in Romans 7 –

15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…18...For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.   21Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.

Cain and Abel are representative of our own selves – we all have a measure of good and evil within us, a measure of light and dark.  Which side is going to win?  It is very easy – and very tempting – to externalize evil, as though it is always something outside of us, but it is ever with us and we cannot deceive ourselves into thinking that we do not have the potential for both within us.

2.  Do the Right Thing Because It Is the Right Thing.
Righteousness is not a guarantee of blessing and protection.  Abel was a righteous man.  Genesis tells us that Abel brought the best and the firstborn of his flocks, and look what happened to him. Abel’s goodness and righteousness have nothing to do with his fate.  Abel did everything right, and yet his life came to a violent end.  Plenty of people, throughout history, have suffered in spite of their goodness and righteousness.

The killing of Abel is certainly a powerful repudiation of the prosperity gospel, which teaches that God will guarantee only wealth and blessing to his followers.  The prosperity gospel is a distortion of not only reality, but also of truth, as the killing of Abel is a reminder that simply because one is faithful to God and lives a righteous life, life will not be full of blessing and free from suffering and difficulty.  Throughout the Bible runs the theme that the good sometimes suffer while the evil sometimes prosper.  In John 9 we read the story of Jesus healing a man born blind – As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.  Suffering happens.  Struggles happen.  It matters not how righteous and how good a person might be, at some point in life struggles and difficulties come.  Job is one of the most powerful examples of this truth.  Job, a good and righteous man, had done nothing wrong, and yet great suffering came into his life.  Job’s friends believe that his suffering must have been caused by sin, so they try to convince Job to confess his sin and seek God’s mercy and forgiveness.  Job, however, would not do so.  Job protested his innocence.

This plainly refutes the claim of the prosperity gospel, yet many people continue to perpetuate the falsehood of that distortion of truth and reality.  We are not always rewarded for our goodness, and we should not be surprised when we encounter struggles in life.  In fact, we should remember that, sometimes, doing the right thing may actually cause difficulty for us.  Refusing to participate in a questionable business deal, for example, might bring about negative repercussions for the person who will only practice the best of ethics.    

Difficulties, struggles, and suffering come to all people. No one is immune.  It matters not how good and how righteous a person might be, the reality is that life, at times, becomes very difficult for all people.  This truth is precisely why we must work for justice.  Many good people have suffered in spite of having done no wrong.  Some people are victimized by the reality of unjust and unfair systems, and we must work to disassemble those forces that cause difficulty and suffering for people.
We do the right thing because it is the right thing, regardless of the consequences.  Righteousness, though not a guarantee of protection, is its own reward.  We aren’t to seek after goodness, holiness, and righteousness for what they do for us, but because it is right to do so. 

3.  We Are Called to Live in Peace With One Another.
How is it that humanity seems to so easily engage in violence, real and portrayed?  I watch fewer movies and less and less TV, mostly because of the amount of violence that permeates so much entertainment.  Hollywood, obviously, loves violence.  Most big blockbusters are little more than a constant bludgeoning of endless, mind-numbing violence.  Take out the scenes of violence and a movie would quickly be reduced to very little dialogue.

Sadly, the violence in our entertainment is a reflection of the violence that fills the world of reality.  Real life is full of violence, and always has been.  From the beginning violence has been part of the fabric of humanity.  Read history and you will find countless examples.  The ancient world was a brutal place in which to live, but even in supposedly enlightened, modern era there is plenty of brutality that remains.  The 20th century, in fact, probably saw more large-scale violence than any other era in history.

Of the many fascinating elements of the story of Cain and Abel is the reality that the first murder comes from a conflict between two men who were worshipping God.  That is a sad fact, isn’t it?  Now, I do not buy into the narrative that religion causes violence, but I do believe that people often use religion to justify their violence.  Religion is sometimes misinterpreted, misused, and misapplied in order to bolster and justify the actions of some people.  And, considering that so many people in the world are religious, many things will have religious overtones.  It is important to remember, however, most things are ever as simple as some people want to believe, and that includes the question of what causes violence.

One of the most interesting parts of this passage is the fact that Cain was the one who committed the act of violence, and yet God protects him.  Abel is the innocent, and he suffers; Cain is the guilty party, and he is protected.  God places a mark upon Cain, which not only identifies him for the act of violence he has committed, but also serves as a mark of protection.  It was, I believe, as if God was saying, that’s enough!  Violence never solves violence.  And while some might believe there is justification for retribution, there will be none.  God’s action is a powerful refutation of what we often call justice, which is too often only retribution or revenge under a more acceptable name.

In the violent world in which we live, I would hope we could all agree that we should not be making jokes about inflicting violence upon others.  It doesn’t matter your political or religious beliefs and affiliations, no one needs to joke about violence against others.  And, I will add, this is not a new development.  Though we have heard much about these distasteful remarks in the past few months, there have been many examples in recent years, and it is time to say enough!  Surely we can express our disagreements in a way that is civil and decent.

The words of Cain, am I my brother’s keeper, were said, most likely, with some sense of disdain.  Cain knew very well where his brother was, as he had killed Abel in a rage because of his jealousy towards God’s favor of Abel.  Cain believed he had no responsibility toward his brother, but he did.  Certainly, we would say that we have a responsibility to care for our families, but the implication of the story of Cain and Abel is one that reminds us that we are all brothers and sisters.  In the kingdom of God, while we have our own individual families, there is the idea that we are part of one larger family because we are all children of our heavenly Father, which binds us together in a spirit of unity that asks us to care for one another.  That unity sees beyond any kind of human-erected boundaries and borders that seek to limit our responsibility to care for others.

Cain’s question, am I my brother’s keeper, is a question that continues to resonate across the ages.  We are, after all, our brother’s – and our sister’s – keeper.

Monday, June 19, 2017

June 18, 2017 The Gift of Leadership

To let you know where we will be going in the coming weeks, I will begin a four-message series next Sunday titled Music of the Heart.  Each message will be based on a song that carries a spiritual truth.  They are not what we would normally refer to as sacred music, and that is intentional.  They are pop songs that are favorites of mine, and one of the reasons why I chose to use pop songs is because I believe that we sometimes create too much of a division between the sacred and the secular.  I believe all of God’s creation is sacred, regardless of whether or not we see a particular part of that creation as sacred or not.  Music, in particular, is sacred because of the way it can move us and touch our hearts.  Few things in life carry the power of music, and I believe that is part of God’s intent for music.  The songs I will use are – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother, by The Hollies.  The spiritual theme is that we are our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper.  You’re My Best Friend, by Queen, and the theme of friendship, from the story of David and Jonathan.  One, by U2, and the theme of unity, as spoken to by Jesus at the Last Supper.  The Long and Winding Road, by the Beatles, and the them of the wandering path that our lives sometimes takes, but the way in which God leads us along that path.

Upon the conclusion of that series we will move into a series of messages titled The Great Commands, in which we will study some of the great commands of Scripture, such as Micah 6:8 – He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.  From there, it will be a series about ministering to others in various situations.

Today we ordain Diane Bland and Julie Mulcahy as elders, so I will use the occasion to speak about the importance of leadership, with a message titled The Gift of Leadership.
Our text for the morning is John 13:1-9, a familiar passage where Jesus washes the feet of the disciples –

1 It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus.
Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God;
so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.
After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

There are so many things we can say about leadership and the qualities of a leader –

A leader should model humility.  Leadership can produce inflated egos – or feed egos already inflated – and that is when problems can become apparent, especially in churches.  There have been too many tragic examples of church leaders who have struggled, and at the root of their problems is often a lack of humility.
A leader should lead by example.
A leader must be committed.  Leadership is not for the faint of heart, and it is not for those who are unwilling to make a commitment to what leadership asks.
A leader cannot be easily encouraged.  There have been numerous times over the years when I wanted to quit.  On some occasions I prayed and asked God to give me something else to do, but when things are difficult, that is the time to become recommitted.
A leader must be willing to make sacrifices.  Time is certainly one of the areas of sacrifice, as being in a position of leadership requires a lot of time.
A leader must have thick skin.  Criticism often comes with being a leader, and none of us enjoy criticism, but we must learn how to deal with it and not become discouraged by it.
A leader must have a strong prayer life.  There are times when being a leader is very lonely, and a leader must have a place to turn in order to find support and strength, and prayer will certainly provide this.
There are many more qualities that can be mentioned, but I will focus on four this morning –

1.  Leadership Is A Gift.

Leadership is important in every area of life, be it business, political, or spiritual.  Leadership, however, is a somewhat elusive and rare gift.  While there are many positions of leadership, not every position is filled by someone who possesses the gift of leadership.  And make no mistake about it – leadership is a gift.

When I say that leadership is a gift, I mean that in the expected sense, as a spiritual gift possessed by the person who is gifted to be a leader.  But there is another way in which leadership is a gift, and that is what I want us to think about this morning.  Leadership just a gift in the sense of being a talent or an ability, as we might say that someone has a talent for music, or art, or athletics; leadership is also a gift to the people the leader serves.

One of the ways in which leadership is a gift to people is through the providing of a vision and focus.  When I was on vacation last week we were visiting a beach one day.  I was sitting on the beach, reading a book, and became aware of music coming from all directions.  Many people on the beach had radios and music devices with them and there was a lot of music.  I would find my ear drifting toward a song, then another song, and another song, making it hard not only to concentrate on my book, but even to listen to just one of the songs.  I thought about how that was analogous to what a leader often faces.  There are so many things that come our way in terms of opportunities – good and worthy opportunities – but there it is not possible to take up every opportunity.  At times, the many opportunities can be like trying to take a drink out of a fire hydrant.  Imagine turning on a fire hydrant and then trying to take a drink out of the rushing water – it would be very difficult!  Sometimes, the best thing a leader can do is to say that is a very good opportunity, but we simply cannot take it on at this time.  We are involved in so many good and worthy endeavors already that we cannot stretch our resources that thin.  This is an important part of providing vision.  We are all familiar with Proverbs 29:18, which tells us that where there is no vision, the people perish.  Vision provides focus, and focus allows individuals and congregations, to better use their gifts and abilities.

2.  Leadership Seeks the Person; the Person Does Not Seek Leadership.

In terms of spiritual leadership, I believe a true leader never seeks a position of leadership, but the position seeks the person.  Leadership finds the person.

I was given some very good advice years ago, when a trusted member of a church told me how to find the true leaders in a congregation.  Don’t look at the list of leaders they told me; instead, find out who it is that people listen to when they speak. The people who have the ear of the congregation are the true leaders, regardless of what might be listed on a piece of paper.  I have found that advice to be very accurate.  In the churches I have served, I have watched and observed in order to discover those leaders.

People search out leadership opportunities in business.  People search out leadership opportunities in politics.  In spiritual endeavors, however, we do not seek out leadership, but allow leadership to seek us.  It is not appropriate, in my opinion, for a person to seek a position of spiritual leadership because that is not the way that spiritual leadership operates.  We recognize spiritual leadership and then follow that leadership; we do not award spiritual leadership to a person simply because they are seeking it.

People are often surprised when asked to serve in positions of leadership, which is exactly how it should be.  Peter was not looking to be an apostle.  He was just some guy trying to make a living as a fisherman.  The same was true of James, John, and Andrew.  Matthew was counting his money in his tax office or whatever else he did in his office.  And Paul!  What was Paul doing?  He was out to persecute followers of Jesus!  Not only was he not looking to be an apostle, he was out to rid the world of followers of Jesus!

3. Leadership Relies Upon Power, But It Is the Power of Servanthood.

Power is, obviously, a major part of much of the leadership in our world. 
Our Scripture text is one of the best examples of what we call servant leadership.  Servant leadership is not the same as the kind of leadership we find in politics and business.  Servant leadership is found in positions of spiritual leadership, and as it is based in spirituality it functions according to different principles than other forms of leadership.  Servant leadership, for example, does not view power in the same way as political leadership.  Political leadership operates on power – the kind of power that operates by a majority of votes and, when necessary, coercion.  Spiritual leadership also operates on power, but a different type of power – never coercive, but the power of example.  When Jesus knelt and washed the feet of the disciples he was demonstrating, by example, how they were to live and how they were to treat one another.  It was the power of Jesus’ example – as a servant – that taught the disciples about how they were to lead others.  If, for instance, a leader wants people to be compassionate, the leader must be compassionate.  If the leader wants people to be kind, the leader must be kind.  If the leader wants people to be generous, the leader must be generous.  A good example for us this morning is Laine’s leadership with Vacation Bible School.  Look around the sanctuary at all the decorations, and throughout the building.  Laine does not ask people to come and do the work while she stays at home; she is hearing providing the example of leadership, investing many hours of work.

This is the type of leadership that is in short supply these days, unfortunately.

Jesus often gave examples of servant leadership when he made statements such as, Matthew 20:16, the last will be first, and the first will be last and Mark 8:35, whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.  He certainly demonstrated servant leadership when he washed the feet of the disciples.  When Peter protested that Jesus should not be washing feet, it was probably because Peter was struggling to accept the role of being a servant in his own life.  It is not easy to be a servant.  It is, oftentimes, easier to adopt the types of leadership that exalt us to positions of privilege and security, but servant leadership is what we are called to, as modeled by Jesus.

4.  Leadership Is Hard.

Leadership has always been hard, but in the hyper-partisan, divided times in which we live, it’s become even harder.

When I was an associate minister, back in the 80s, there were many times when I observed the decisions and difficulties placed upon our minister.  On many occasions I thought to myself, I am so glad I do not have to deal with that.  Upon leaving that position, and entering senior minister positions, I learned what it was like to be in a position where I am faced with difficult decisions and difficult circumstances that I cannot avoid.  Personally, I have often found leadership to be a heavy mantle to carry.  Going into ministry, I did not think of myself as a leader, although ministers are required to function as a leader, whether or not they envision themselves in that role.  I think of myself more as a pastor than as a leader.  Understanding that a pastor is also a leader, I believe my natural gifts and tendencies gravitate toward encouragement, caring, and comforting, so stepping into the role of leadership is not what comes natural to me.

Don’t be surprised that leadership is difficult.  Don’t be discouraged.  Don’t take it personally.  Don’t blame yourself when things are difficult.  It’s not your fault that leadership is difficult; it’s just reality.  Do you think Peter found it easy?  Do you think Paul found it easy?  Do you think Moses found it easy?  They did not.  Exodus 17:8-13 contains a story about one of the difficulties Moses faced as a leader –

The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim.
Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.”
10 So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill.
11 As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning.
12 When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset.

I like the image of Aaron and Hur holding up the hands of Moses when he became tired.  As leaders, we depend upon the support, care, and prayers of others.  Take the time to encourage leaders and assure them of your prayers.

Last month, on the 23rd, I came to the 38th anniversary of my ordination.  I remember that service very well, and in particular I remember the laying on of hands portion of the service.  I remember the weight of those hands upon me, and when I looked at my ordination certificate the other day, I realized that of the twelve people who signed it, only two are still alive.  The others have joined what Hebrews 12:1 describes as that great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us.  Even though most of the individuals who took part in my ordination are now gone, they continue to mold and shape my life in important ways.  And when I think of the weight of their hands upon me, all those years ago, I think about the ways in which they continue to lift me up and to encourage me, and that in a spiritual sense, their hands are still upon me.

Leaders are never alone.  Never.  However difficult it gets, leaders are never alone.  I am grateful to God for that knowledge, and I am grateful for The Gift of Leadership.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

June 4, 2017 Life Lessons On Faith: Learning the Hard Way

This morning we conclude the series of messages on the theme Life Lessons On Faith.  Two weeks from today we ordain two new elders and the message will center on the idea of calling.  I will begin a new series, on June 25th, tentatively called Music of the Heart.  In that series I will offer four messages that are based on songs. 

I’ve been thinking about that series for a long time.  I spend a good deal of time in my car, driving to meetings, hospitals, and other places, and as I do I listen to a lot of music on the radio.  I’ve long been interested in the amount of spiritual affirmation and longing that is presented in so many songs, of almost every genre.  Being the one who is writing the messages, I will take the liberty of selecting songs that are not only favorites of mine, but ones that I believe present important spiritual messages.
From there we will go to a series titled The Great Commands, such as Micah 6:8 – He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

As we complete our present series, we turn to the book of James, one of the most straightforwardly practical books in the Bible. It is so practical, and so straightforward, that it can be downright painful at times.  James uses plain, every day, blunt, language to make his points.  While other writers – most notably Paul – sometimes overwhelm us with deeply theological writing and concepts, James is down to earth and plainspoken.  His brief, to the point letter, is one to which I often turn, in my own study and often in my preaching, as James is always worth taking the time to study.

The title of today’s message is Learning the Hard Way.  I don’t know about you, but much of what I have learned in life has had to come to me by “the hard way.”  Sometimes, unfortunately, I am a slow learner.  Sometimes, I’m kind of oblivious to certain lessons and truths and need something to get my attention, a process that can be quite painful and difficult in its attention-getting.

And perhaps nowhere is that more true that in the things that we say, or, don’t say.

Listen as I read our text for today, from James 3:3-13 –

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.
Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.
Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.  Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.
The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind,
but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 
10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 
12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs?  Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

I want to say four things briefly this morning – sometimes we say what we shouldn’t and sometimes we fail to say what we should say.  Sometimes we do what we shouldn’t, and sometimes we fail to do what we should do.

I will say first of all, that every one of us is guilty on these four points.  There might be variations of guilt, but we are all guilty, so that should, first of all, remind us to not be judgmental about others when they fail on this points.

1.  Sometimes we say what we shouldn’t.

When I was in college, I was often looking for the easy route, academically speaking.  All students were required to take six hours of Humanities for the first two years, and I registered for a specific professor because he had no attendance requirements in his class.  Several of my friends registered with professors who had very rigorous attendance requirements I had a grand old time not going to class while my friends were working hard in their Humanities classes.  I reminded them often of how foolish they were to miss out on my wise decision to take advantage of a no attendance policy.  And then came the first exam (although we had different professors, we all took the same exams).  Suddenly, I realized I had no notes or any other helps to prepare me for the exam.  I asked my friends if I could use their notes and if they could help me to catch up on what I missed.  Understandably, I did not get much sympathy, or help.  And guess who’s fault it was when I did badly on the exam?  Surely not me – it was the professor’s fault!  After the exam, on which I did very poorly, I was very loudly telling my roommate about the professor and what a disservice he did to our class.  We were standing just outside a partially opened door and I was offering a blistering critique of the professor.  I did not know that he was standing on the other side of the door, and he obviously heard every word I said.  When he walked through the door, and right past me, he gave me a look that I will never forget.  I wish I could say I learned my lesson after that moment, but I didn’t.  It’s a lesson I’m still trying to learn!

James uses such strong language in this passage – bit, rudder, spark, out of control, raging fire.  We all say things we shouldn’t, and then we are left with days, months, years, lifetimes of regret.  James is telling us this for good reason, and it makes me wonder, did James have to learn this lesson the hard way?  Had James said some things he wished he could take back?  Or, perhaps, he was thinking of some others in mind when he wrote those words.  Perhaps he was thinking of Peter, and his denials.
There is an old fable about a young man who seeks out the wisdom of a much older, and wiser, man.  The young man, it seems, had said some harsh words; words he wished he could take back, as they were very hurtful.  He asked the older man what he could to.  The old man replied, take a feather pillow and go outside on a windy day.  Cut the pillow open and scatter the feathers to the wind.  Let the wind blow the feathers far and wide.  When the wind stops, go and gather up all of the feathers.  The young man protested, but that’s impossible!  There is no way to gather up all those feathers once they have scattered on the wind.  The old man had made his point, but the young man had not yet caught on, so the old man said, it’s the same way with our words.  Once they are spoken it is impossible to gather them up again.  I wish I could tell you that you could recapture your words, but you cannot.  Better to never speak them than to try and recapture them.

There is no one among us who has not wished – multiple times – that we had not held our tongue.  Who among us has not felt the sting of regret for saying something we should not have said?  Too often words come across our minds and out our mouths.  Let them sit awhile.  Let those words linger in our minds before they are spoken.

2.  Sometimes we fail to say what we should say.

While it is true that we often think about the things we wish we had not said, how often do we think about the things we have not said, but should have? The tongue, James says, also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.  Strong and truthful words, certainly, but let us also remember that the tongue can be a powerful weapon in speaking about issues and matters that need to be addressed. There is, no doubt, times when we must hold our tongues, but there are times when we must use them as well.

The prophets of the Old Testament are powerful examples of this truth, as they often railed against the powers of their day and their unjust and unfair treatment of people.  I admire the Old Testament prophets for several reasons, one being that they had the right word for the right moment.  The prophets were not always railing against the injustices of society.  Sometimes they were very pastoral and very comforting.  But when the moment called for a forceful word, they were ready with it.

Jesus, very often, spoke out forcefully about issues that needed to be addressed.  Jesus did not pull punches in much of what he had to say, as he spoke powerfully and bluntly and that is why he had some enemies.  You don’t call people a brood of vipers (Matthew 23:33), as he did the Pharisees, and not get people upset.  You don’t tell people they are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean (Matthew 23:27) and not have pushback.  I’ll be honest and say, when it comes to knowing the right word for the right time, knowing when to speak prophetically and when to speak pastorally, knowing when to speak and when not to speak, I’m certainly not Jesus or one of the prophets.

If you’ve ever thought to yourself that preaching seems easy, let me assure you – it is certainly not.  And one of the most difficult parts of preaching is to know not what to say, but when to say it.  Some people want to hear more about particular issues and some want less.  Some want more preaching about politics, some less.  The refrain we ministers sometimes hear is say this, don’t say that, which can make it more difficult to know not only what to say, but when to say it.

I often struggle with the question of how we, as a congregation can or ought to speak to issues in our community and world.  In my preaching I often wonder how specific to get.  One of the reasons why I agreed to write a column in the Sentinel-News is because you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to hear it.  But the larger question remains – how do we, as very diverse people in our congregation, come to any agreement about the issues to which we should speak?  Is it possible to come to any agreement?  Should we be speaking to particular issues that are taking place in our community and world?

They are important questions to consider, especially in light of the truth that sometimes we do need to speak, and speak very plainly and forcefully.

3.  Sometimes we do what we shouldn’t do.

I did not include other passages from James in our Scripture reading for this morning, but I would encourage you to take a few minutes today or sometime this week and read through his letter.  It doesn’t take very long, but do not mistake his brevity for a lack of punch in what he has to say.
In 2:1-7 James writes this –

1 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.
Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in.
If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,”
have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?
But you have dishonored the poor.  Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?
Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

James sounds a lot like an Old Testament prophet there, doesn’t he?  Now that’s some preaching!  James uses very simple, plain, down to earth language to say there are some things we should not do, and one of those is to make distinctions between people.

When I traveled with Tanya several weeks ago to Boston we visited some of the old churches there, such as the Old North Church, where Paul Revere placed the lanterns in the steeple as a warning that the British were marching on the city.  If you have visited some of the oldest churches in our country – especially in the northeast – you have noticed that the pews are often boxed in, and on the outside of the box there are names, signifying who has the privilege of sitting in those boxes.  This was a common practice early in our nation’s history, as a person’s social status could be measured by which box they occupied in church.  Incidentally, those boxes were secured for a price, and the boxes closest to the front were the most expensive.  The seats in the back and the balcony were cheaper, so if you are sitting in the back, you are sitting in what were, years ago, quite literally the cheap seats (not that I’m insinuating anything about those of you on the back rows!). 

I wonder what James would make of such seating arrangements?  Clearly, social status and differences between people are brought into church worship services, where they obviously should not exist.  We too quickly and too easily buy into the social standards of wealth and status as the basis for the value we place upon people.  Rich?  You’re more valuable as a person than someone who is poor.  Have a high social standing?  You’re more valuable as a person than someone who is on the bottom rungs of the social ladder.

The distinctions that are too easily made between people – even in church – are one of the reasons why we need the corrective of the Scriptures and worship (even though we sometimes hurt worship by bringing in social distinctions).  We need a corporate reminder that sometimes we do what we shouldn’t do, and worship is the place where we receive this reminder.

4.  Sometimes we fail to do what we should do.

You are probably familiar with the terms sins of omission and commission.  We don’t talk about them much these days, but sins of omission and commission remind us that sometimes we deliberately fail to do what we should do, while at other times we do the wrong thing or fail to do what we should simply as an oversight, without any intended malice.

It is not the sins of commission (the deliberate sins) that worry me as much as the sins of omission (the ones we commit without realizing we have committed them).  Sins of omission reveal the painful truth of our true character, such as the fact that we might make a distinction between people without realizing it because we feel entitled to our privilege.  We might, for instance, look at our society and react negatively to what goes on in some communities because we don’t understand what it’s like to live in those communities.  We can often – and do often – criticize poor communities for what happens there, such as crime, because we don’t understand what it is like to live in those communities.  Poverty does, after all, give birth to crime because of the desperation that comes with living in a poor community.

This is why it is important for us not just to speak out against some things, but why we should speak out for some things.  We shouldn’t simply speak out against crime; we should speak up for solutions that seek to rectify the root causes of that crime.  For churches, this means that we need to be seen and heard.  We can’t just talk about the evils of the world; we need to get out of our buildings and work to help those who are oppressed by the evils of the world and who suffer because of those evils.  We can’t just say we are to love our enemies; we need to go out and love our enemies.

It is not easy to do what is right.  Sometimes we say the wrong thing and sometimes we do the wrong things.  At other times, we don’t say anything and don’t do anything.  All of this is proof, I believe, of why we need to be working together as brothers in sisters in faith, challenging and encouraging one another.  It sure beats Learning the Hard Way.