September 13, 2015 – A harvest of peace

Pentecost 16 September 13, 2015 (Psalm 19, Proverbs 12:13-22) James 3:1-18

A harvest of peace

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In the beginning the heavens and the earth are called into being through God’s spoken word. And because we’re all made in the image and likeness of God – our words also have power to create worlds and universes…

The problem is just that we humans seem to not always exhibit God’s pure wisdom in our speaking… (This might be an understatement…)

Part of me wants to blame this on the election cycle and talk radio and talk tv and decline in civility. And probably all these usual suspects are guilty as charged. But when I remember history… It’s pretty clear that the patterns of lies, half-truths, slander, innuendo, and character assassination that we complain about often but take more-or-less for granted most of the time… Are not modern inventions. The ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, Paris and London, New York, Chicago, even beloved Boston… are all full of archival anecdotes of bitter speech and tongue-lashing of people made in the image of God… Even in church we’ve sometimes witnessed some of what James is talking about today. That’s why he wrote this letter to the churches. With the same tongue we bless God our Maker… and curse those made by our Maker in the likeness of God…

This ought not to be so… The word of God tells us… But yes, more often than we’d like… The word of God in the letter of James, brother of Jesus, proves to be as up to date as the morning paper or the latest-breaking-on-line-news… As James teaches today on the power of the human tongue, the power of human words, to create the world we live in…

And this power of the tongue is so powerful, James says – it’s like fire, spreading from small smoky embers of a camp fire… to become a raging forest fire… engulfing many miles of timber…

So I’ve been thinking about forest fire as one of James’ chosen analogies… And since James cautions us about too many of us being teachers – teachers use their tongues more than most, and are often teaching the young and impressionable who are at-risk if the teachings bad – and since James includes himself as a teacher – saying “we (not you) who teach will be judged more strictly, and we (again not you but we) all make many mistakes” – and since James is applying this strong caution to himself – at the very same time that he’s using strong language to get our attention – therefore, it’s pretty clear James is exercising biblical poetic license – as he sings the treacherous-tongue-blues – with his mouth wide open.

And as a teacher myself, who relies on words, I’ve been listening to James… And remembering my younger brothers, Sam and Eben, who both worked as fire-fighters with the Forest Service when they were younger. And I remember asking them about the fire-fighter’s technique of fighting fire with fire – pre-burning a section of forest deliberately, to take away fuel for the larger fire, and try to stop the main fire from spreading… And I went into my files, and found what youngest brother Eben wrote back to me, saying:

The essence of fighting fire with fire is – Fire is a living, breathing, dangerous thing – and attempting to use it as a tool against itself is risky at best…. Fire goes wither it will – sometimes against logic – certainly against the best laid plans of man…Fire is amazing – captivating, terrifying, magnificent, always fascinating – but terrible power and danger lie just beneath the beauty.” (He could be talking about words now… just as easily as fire…And brother Eben continues:)

“Here’s the thought that sticks…imagine yourself in north central Montana in August – dry, hot, strong winds blowing – you’re in a mature pine forest, trees up to 150-feet-tall, thick-together, all around you. You’re standing on a ridge-line, looking down several hundred feet into a creek far below, and opposite is a thickly forested slope, perhaps 300 or 400 acres in size. The fire you’ve been working for several days has crept downhill on the slope you’re on, which you’ve more or less stabilized for the time being – if – the wind doesn’t change appreciably…The fire is now languishing down in the thick brush along the creek, and the Sector Boss your crew is working for wants to get somebody down to the base of the slope… to cut a line and preclude the fire jumping onto the slope as the day heats up. They’ve laid down fire retardant by bomber and helicopter on the brush, but all that’s done is sealed in the fire that’s already working. You and your crew boss see that slope as a death-trap, and refuse to go down into it. The Sector Boss is outraged, and he’s starting to speak of insubordination – when, literally, as you speak, small tongues of flame become visible at the base of that 300-to-400-acre slope.

You look at your friend, and he looks at you and says, “That whole thing is gonna go – get your camera!” Yet by the time you remove your backpack, and grab your camera case, that 300 to 400 acres is gone – in a prolonged roar, like freight trains hitting head on – heat so searing that, from a quarter of a mile away, it melts your goggle lenses and the plastic name tag on your hard hat – just like lighting a giant book of matches – it’s gone.

Now that’s fighting fire with fire….

(My brother Eben’s a good writer… Makes me want to shut up and sit down… That’s good writing. )

But sometimes we do need to use words… Even to communicate the danger of words… Sometimes sign language won’t cut it. But we always need to remember:

The tongue is a fire. Words are volatile. Words are dangerous. Words can hurt way worse than flying elbows or a punch in the gut. Words, spoken wrong ways at wrong times, have ways of turning into huge blazing fiery wars of words. Family feuds, best-friend-battles…Good neighbors descending into neighbor-cide… Nations once allied, now threatening to drop the big one. The smallest exchange of the wrong words, stoked with more of the same, then more of the same again, can become a full-fledged cycle of escalating-retaliations – till its war… Hot war, cold war… Either way, something dies… (It might be a relationship, it might be combatants and non-combatants alike… But any time there’s war, someone and something dies…)

The tongue is a fire. Speech can inflame otherwise normal people to act like a mob. It doesn’t have to start with outright lies or slurs. Even words that might be technically true, said in the wrong spirit, can hurt more than a kick in the shins, and take a whole lot longer to mend than broken bones.

And preaching and teaching and even just trying to carry on daily conversation… can sometimes be a little bit like fighting forest fire…with fire. Trying to set controlled blazes to try to stop bigger fires can be dangerous work for the soul.

I’m often made aware of my own failures to control my tongue. And it can seem like hypocrisy to be preaching against things I myself still struggle with. (I was asking God long before I became a pastor if this was really the work I’m called into. I remember telling my early mentors, a clergy couple, Barb and Mitch, that I might be feeling a call to ministry, and I remember how they’d smile and say, “That’s exciting. But don’t do it unless you have to.”

When I did finally commit to enter seminary, Mitch said, “we’ve been wondering what’s been taking you so long.” I said, “You’re the ones who told me ‘don’t go there unless you have to.’” He said, “Yes, but we’ve still been wondering, what’s been taking you so long.”

And having read this letter of James many times, and knowing well James’ caution against becoming a teacher of the word too readily… I continued to struggle with my sense of call for two-and-a-half-years after seminary, doing church-related work, but not taking a church… And every year since I began to pastor (I’m in my fourteenth year now) I still ask God often “are you sure this is what I’m supposed to be doing?”

So far, God still seems to be saying, “I’ll let you know when and if its time to do something else… Meanwhile… Keep working at the faith I’ve given you…”)

And of course there are many other passages in scripture, including our readings from Psalm 19 and Proverbs 12, that tell us thoughtful and prayerful speech is often necessary. And probably James, who is a teacher, and who does use words, is using colorful language to try to reinforce the necessity of choosing words carefully. Four of the five chapters in this letter touch on control of the tongue. But his strong language throughout this letter is like a controlled burn, fighting fire with fire. The point is to help us recognize – the power of words for good or ill.

And in fairness even to talk show hosts and preachers – James isn’t telling us to practice total abstinence from speech. Silent prayer and meditation can be a wonderful practice. In Psalm 46 the voice of God tells us “Be still – and know that I am God.” Here’s a great scripture for silent centering prayer.

But even Benedictine monks vowed to silence… manage to hurt each other at times… using only sign language. Silence can be golden. Silence can also be deadly. Silence is not a magic bullet.

And what the word of God is actually saying here, I believe, is – that we need to pre-screen, filter, and control our words. Submit our every word to the test – asking God: Is this true? Is this necessary to say? If not, God help me to keep silent. If so, God help me to say this as gently and mercifully as possible.

We do need to use words – for worship – for basic communication – for cultivation of friendship and neighborliness, and in the interest of mutual accountability and truth telling. But all our truth telling, James says, should be done with love and gentleness. Because our words really do have power. The words we speak really do make the world we live in. So the word of God tells us: choose words carefully, prayerfully, with love. And –

Speak the new world God intends…into being… Speak peace – speak justice – speak reconciliation. Speak forth the new earth the meek shall inherit. Speak forth the new world, where peacemakers, the children of God, sow and reap the harvests of peace with God…

Speak the kingdom of God in all its fullness. Speak God’s words of life – inspired now by the holy fire of God’s Spirit. Let God’s word be our word. Then our words will be telling… the good news of Jesus Christ our glorious Lord… Who brings new life even to the dead…through his living Word.

Thanks be to God. Amen.