Mar 10, 2014

Sticks and stones, and all that

Sticks and Stones and all that
Reader Scripture: Ephesians 4:29 – 32
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.  And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.  Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.  Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

Sermon Scripture: James 3:2-6
“We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.  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.”


As I typically do before a sermon on a topic, I spent some time digging into the Bible and poking around on Google.  I found that when you search out the word “gentle” or “gentleness” in the Bible, two major patterns emerge.   The first is that in the Old Testament, gentleness has a habit of popping up when we are receiving instruction about how we talk:
·         1 Kings 19:12 - “After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.  And after the fire came a gentle whisper.”
·         Proverbs 15:1 - “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
·         Proverbs 25:15 - “Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone.”

In the New Testament it often pops up alongside humility
·         Matthew 11:29 - “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
·         2 Corinthians 10:1 - “By the humility and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you – I, Paul, who am 'timid' when face to face with you, but 'bold' toward you when away!”
·         Ephesians 4:2 - “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”

Keep in mind that Paul in Galatians was speaking Greek, and the Old Testament is written in Hebrew.  Paul's usage of the word differs from how the writers of the Old Testament were using the word “gentle”, but the ideas of gentleness and words along with gentleness and humility do have common ground.

Let's look at how Paul is using the word.  The word for “gentleness” in Greek that Paul uses, especially where used elsewhere in the New Testament, carries with it implications related to power dichotomies.  When Paul is using this word in Galatians, he brings up this idea of gentleness as a fruit of the Spirit being siding with the underdogs, someone acting towards another with humility instead of the power they may have in the relationship.

Every relationship carries with it an element of power.  Parents have power over their children.  Doctors have power over their patients.  Teachers have power over their students, etc.  In Paul's time, citizens of Rome had power over everyone.  He should know – many scholars believe that he was a Roman citizen before declaring his faith in Christ and tossing his hat in the same ring as early Christians.  They base this belief in Acts 22, where we see a story of Paul about to get a beating from Roman officials after telling his conversion story to a crowd.  They said he was not fit to live and were hauling him off to be flogged when he asked if it was legal to do so to a Roman citizen.  Well, it wasn't.  In fact, it says that after Paul said he was born a Roman citizen, "those who were about to interrogate him withdrew immediately.  The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.” (Acts 22:29).  Paul knew well how much power Romans had in that area at that time. 

Paul also knew that the church to which he was speaking was a mix of Roman citizens and Jews, men, women, children, etc.  There were all kinds of power relationships at work here!  Men over women, adults over children, Romans over non-Romans.  This was a breeding ground for discontent and strife if everyone acted upon the power that their culture granted each person.  In fact, we see elsewhere in Acts a story where there were two groups of widows within the church, and one group was getting special treatment based on their ethnicity.  They had to appoint deacons in order to settle the dispute and ensure all were treated fairly. 

Into this situation Paul declared that gentleness is a fruit of the spirit.  Despite the fact that culture may grant people a position of power does not mean that we have to act upon it.  Jesus is consistently on the side of the underdog.

Jesus himself was God's very son, and he did not act upon that power in a way that we might expect.  The son of God rode into Jerusalem upon the back of a donkey.  He washed his disciples' feet.  He ate with beggars, tax collectors, and prostitutes.  He taught on hillsides.  He did the humble thing constantly and consistently.  He did not lord it over anyone that he was the son of God and because of this he was the bee's knees or the cat's meow.  He instead put himself in the position of a humble servant serving those who were considered the least and the lost.

But what has this to do with us?

A few weeks ago I was driving in downtown Red Wing.  One of my favorite musical artists is Josh Wilson and one of his CDs was playing in the car.  As I started praying about this sermon, Josh's song “Forest Fire” came on.  Now, let me share with you some of the lyrics:

                                    She's not half as strong, no/ As she'd like to let on
                                    She smiles, but she knows/ She can't take one more blow
                                    From the hate that she's heard for so long

                                    Our tongues are like matches/ Our ears are like trees
                                    Our words are like sparks/ On dry summer leaves
                                    It doesn't take much/ For the flames to rise/ And turn a soul/ Into a forest fire

I think that Wilson was basing these lyrics on our passage from James today.  Here James was speaking to “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (ch. 1, v. 1).  He tells them, and now us, that we all stumble many times, and that...

“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.” (James 1:1)

My brother and I used to go at it.  We were at each others throats constantly, bickering, arguing.  I wanted his toys, he wanted my crayons, I wanted to sit there, he hit me!, she hit me!, he ate the donuts I wanted.......just constantly bickering at one another.  It was so bad that at one point John, the gentleman I spoke about last week who lived with my family for awhile, took me aside and said that he was going to move out if Daniel and I didn't cool it. 

One day Daniel and I were arguing....again.  We were calling each other nasty names that at the time we were too young to really understand, and saying things that hurt.  My dad came storming up to us, and we got quiet.  Oh boy, we were in for it!  I was sure we were going to be grounded for a week, not allowed to watch TV until we were 50, something like that.  Dad simply got out a Bible, sat us down, and turned to our passage from James.  He had Daniel and I read it aloud and then ask how it applied to our argument.  Well, that argument was over!  Not to say that we didn't argue anymore, James in this passage says that “we all stumble many times”, but in that moment we were humbled by that passage.

I don't think it is a coincidence that gentleness in the New Testament often comes up alongside how we talk with one another.  We've all heard the song “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”  I used to sing it as a kid when my brother was teasing me.  But is it true?  Heck no!  Words can hurt more than anything and be more insidious than any other form of abuse because words travel with you, even when those voicing terrible things are no where close by. 

James says that our tongues are like the bits put in horses mouths, like rudders that steer a boat – where the tongue leads, the body will follow.  Our actions will follow.  The actions of others may follow (especially our children who look to us to learn how to interact with others). 

When the New Testament was penned, God knew human beings would always struggle with power dichotomies.  He also knew that these dichotomies would pop up in how we talk with one another.  Regardless of who is involved in the exchange, when we use negative words or gossip about another person, or slander them behind their back, or bully them, or swear at one another we are forming a power relationship where one may not have yet existed.  We are saying “you are less of a human than me for THIS REASON”.  With our words, we try to make ourselves stronger than another, better than another, in front of another. 

But Jesus is always on the side of the underdog.  He said “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”  Jesus is always on the side of the one who is being maligned, accused falsely, sworn at, verbally abused, etc.  His example of humility calls us to something else, something that turns power structures on their heads.  We are called to be different, to be set apart and different.  Power structures will always be with us.  There will always be one set of people set in front of another, in power over another.  People will always be involved in multiple power relationships. 

But we are called to be gentle.  Paul and James together exhort us to use our power for the benefit of the one who is downtrodden, the least and the lost....not to get ourselves ahead, to put ourselves first!

Beth Moore said that “gentleness is responsibility with power,” and she is right.  What if we use our words in a way that shows we see all people as equals?  What if we use our words for the sake of the downtrodden, advocating for their rights as human beings?  What if we truly recognize Christ in each other person we meet in a way that means we cannot help but to serve rather than to boast in our stance of power?

What if we truly press into a form of gentleness being the act of recognizing how we exercise power dichotomies with our language?  Let's consider this: if we truly see Jesus in the face of the “other”, can we really say that to or about him?  God does not love us because we may perhaps be at the top of some power ladder.  He loves us simply because we are.  He loves us despite the power ladders we may top.  He loves us so much that he sent his son, who not only died for us, but showed us a way to live where everyone is equal, where being truly gentle means using your power for the benefit of others.  He loves us so much that he daily teaches us how to be love, how to be gentle with one another.

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