Bible Centered, Gospel Focused, Liturgical and Sacramental Worship in Loveland, Colorado

For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake (2 Cor. 4:5).

September 26 2021

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, creators of the worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth respectively, begin their stories of these worlds with a creation account, and something these two creation accounts share in common is that in both the creator God sings creation into existence. Both Aslan and Illuvitar (that is the name of Middle Earth’s god, and to answer your next question, “no” I was not very popular in high school), both of these gods resemble and amplify the story of creation found in Genesis by singing creation into existence as God speaks it into existence. Both authors, who were borrowing heavily from one another, explain the story of the fall and entrance of sin into their respective worlds in similar ways as well: it is the result of angelic beings who decide to sing their own notes and their own songs, instead of harmonizing and singing with the good creator God, that a good creation turns wicked. In this way, they quite literally create alternate, evil, hellish worlds which now exist at war with the good and beautiful worlds created by God. Singing one’s own song creates another, distorted world.

This will be my final sermon on the Epistle of James for some time, as our lectionary is moving on, even if it seems like I cannot move on. The focus of my sermon this morning will be speech in James’ letter, how we speak as Christians, a major topic in the letter of James. God has called all of us to closely examine our manner of speaking, to and about one another, and this is a defining marker of life in the Church, that we would speak with caution and with grace. James says in the passage we read this morning, “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law.”

In summarizing James, I am reminded of the words of William Cavanaugh, a theologian, who writes critically of the kind of Christianity which “limits the range of Christian faith from the entire body to the space within the ears.” This is very much the message of James. And if we are to speak of the Christian faith in relation to our whole person, our entire body, James is very clear that the part of our body between our lips, our tongue is the part of our body we should be most concerned with as Christians. Why does our manner of speech (the importance of how we speak shows up constantly in James’ Letter) hold such an important place in James’ thinking about life in the church?

A meaningful and fairly obvious way to answer this question is to acknowledge that, since James was probably the same James who led a church in Jerusalem for several decades, James could speak from personal experience like any minister about the damage done in Christian communities by careless, hurtful speech. The old adage that sticks and stones may break my bones, but words cannot never hurt me is absolutely false for the church. Words can, words do, and words have destroyed christian communities.

Knowledge about the power of human speech to do tremendous evil does not only belong to Christians like us or James. I mentioned last Sunday that James is often read alongside the wisdom writers outside of the Church in the ancient Mediterranean world. Greek Philosophers also wrote a great deal about the importance of careful speech, and the conclusion of most philosophers in their reflections on speech was that a wise person does not speak very often. Practice what you preach, Fr. Matt, you may be thinking.

This is an odd perspective for Americans. We are a society that exalts extroverts and big talkers and treats quiet introverts as if there is something wrong with them. This is such a different way of treating speech from the wisdom of the ancient world, the ancients would look at us very critically. A silent person is wise because silence implies listening, you can actually learn something if you are quiet, you can actually express genuine care for another in silence. A silent person is often a person who is slow to anger, they are silent because they want to respond to you, not react to you. At the end of the day, not speaking is simply a safer way to live, for there is less possibility of doing harm when you do not speak. Brevity is best, for measured speech reflects a measured person. The maxim that “still waters run deep” was taken very seriously by the Greeks, and the Greeks were highly pessimistic about human speech, they viewed the tongue as something that mostly just causes damage and problems; damage which is near impossible to repair.

And all of this is in the background of James’ own Christian wisdom about human speech. James differs from the Greeks in their pessimism about human speech in one respect, he is even more pessimistic than ancient philosophers were about the human tongue. James agrees with everything Greek philosophers believed about speech but, unlike them, believed that human beings had no potential to actually control speech, even as Christians. So for James it was far, far better to speak less instead of more for the sake of the church. If you have ever wondered why there are monastic communities who take vows of silence, this is why. If you are bound to a life together in a Christian community where you spend every waking hour with the same people, human speech should be limited to worship and prayer; and to times of fellowship on the Sabbath; if there is to be any speaking at all, as hard as it is to digest this, there is great wisdom in this way of thinking.

So it is again worth asking why James is so pessimistic about human speech. Ultimately, James’ pessimism about speech boils down to the fact that speaking is one of the principle reasons human beings can know they are created in the image of God. For as often as we use the phrase, “image bearers,” in reference to fellow human beings, James is the only author in all of Scripture who uses this phrase. We are all made in the image of God, that comes from James. And James connects speech with God’s creative action on several occasions in this letter. For James, we are “like God,” we are “image bearers” because we can speak.

In Chapter 1 of James, James refers to the Church as a place where Christians have been given birth, “by a word of truth,” continuing this theme by calling Christians the “first fruits of creation.” Here the connection between God’s creative capacities, given to human beings as image bearers, with God’s ability to speak is explicit. It is through God’s speech that all of creation, all things visible and invisible, was made. God spoke all things into existence, and to be an image bearer of God means to share the creative capacity of speech with God. This is why the first task given to Adam in creation was the naming of all animals, and in that way Adam shared in the work of creation with God as an image-bearer.

But that is not the world we live in, is it? We live in the world of Genesis chapter 3, not Genesis chapter 2. James highlights that when sin broke into creation in the Fall, our capacity to speak and create became a capacity to speak and destroy. Much like the satanic figures in Narnia and Middle Earth, our decision not to speak the words of God and to go our own way, to be a law unto ourselves, meant that our capacity to imitate God as creators became a capacity to destroy, to distort, and to kill. In chapter 3 of James, he speaks of the tongue like a cosmic force with a power all its own, saying that the tongue is “a world of wickedness… lit by the fires of gehenna.” Gehenna is another way of describing hell, and these fires of hell are what ignite the human tongue.

This little flap in our mouths is described by James as a cosmic force with a mind of its own, lit by the very fires of hell, a part of us that is practically outside of our control. Because of our fallenness, we quite literally have the capacity to create a living hell for ourselves and others, with our tongue, with our speech. I think of the terrible dictators and politicians who have come to power through the power of their speech, specifically those who achieve power by means of appealing to prejudice and hatred. Ask the victims of the genocides that have marked most of the past 100 years about the power of the human tongue to dehumanize them, to deny their dignity as image bearers, and that end result of their world quite literally becoming hellish. This monstrous power is all too real, and sadly, the tongue’s destructive power is not only evident in the world, but also in the church.

The image of the human tongue lit by the fires of hell is so provocative and disturbing, and it reminds me very much of something we are very familiar with as Westerners, wildfires. In 2011, the Wallow Fire burned through one of my favorite places in my home state of Arizona, the White Mountains which rise up in the Northeastern part of the State and spread into New Mexico. It is still, to date, the largest wildfire in Arizona history, and it began when two avid outdoorsmen who love Arizona’s mountainous wilderness started a campfire when they were not supposed to. They had it going for a night while they camped, put it out that night, and left for a hike the next morning, and did not realize that they had in fact not properly put the fire out the night before until they returned to their camp from the hike to find it engulfed in flames. They immediately called a Ranger Station, but by then it was too late, hell had broken loose, and something those two loved dearly, half a million acres of Alpine forest, suffered greatly as a result. Tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of years of creation was undone in a couple of weeks. The two men, who are today deeply remorseful about what they did, are in a payment plan with the state of Arizona to repay the nearly 4 million dollars in damages they owe the state. All of this in spite of their intentions, in spite of their love for the forest, the deed had still been done.

This is so much like the power of the tongue in the church. We speak, and there is no putting it back, there is no way to reverse the beginning of a fire, there is no way to reverse words spoken, emails, or texts sent in anger. And the damage is done by people who love the church. We do not harm the church because we hate the church, we may even deceive ourselves into believing our wicked speech is for the sake of the church, but our intentions really do not matter. So we should indeed approach our phone calls, emails, and conversations as we would hold a flame in a dry Alpine forest; for these small, ordinary, normal interactions are capable of igniting a destructive flame that can consume God’s people, even and precisely when you do not mean or want that to happen.

A little over 100 years ago, a London newspaper held an essay contest, asking that all applicants answer the question, “what is wrong with the world today?” The winning essay was written by the satirist and public Christian intellectual G.K. Chesterton, and it reads, “Dear sirs, I am. Sincerely, G.K. Chesterton.” I am what is wrong with the world.

If there is anything that we might take away from our time in James’ letter, it should begin with this, we are what is wrong with the world. We do live in a time when an answer like the one offered by Chesterton would be laughed at or ignored by most people with any interest in answering the question what is wrong with the world today. We are always told to look outside of ourselves to find the source of our problems. It is all the millennials fault, all the baby boomers fault, all this system, or that system, we are all victims of something outside of us; and do not think that Christians are not capable of this way of thinking, for Christians in our society are more guilty of this than most.

We fixate on the notion that we are under attack from the world, and paint ourselves to be victims of the culture and the times, victims of the media and the universities; and all of these outside reasons are the reasons why our numbers are continually declining; but James would say to us when we think this way, “you are what is wrong with the world and you are what is wrong with the church!” God’s people are not victims of the time, but of ourselves; and this was James’ message to a church that existed under intense, violent, bloody, and fatal persecution, not just pressure from cultural forces. In the birth of the early church, with all of the pains that she endured from outside pressures, when the blood of martyrs was spilling, God’s word to the Church through James was not “go defend yourselves,” or “find someone who will defend you,” it was, “be careful how you speak, Christians. Because we are the problem.”

Now, that may be hard to hear, but it should not surprise us at all, precisely because we are Christians. Don’t we always have something to confess when we pray together before the Eucharist, “we have sinned against you in thought word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone?” I always do. If you grew up with an older version of the Prayer Book than ‘79, do you remember that part in the confession when we say “there is no health in us,” for we are “miserable offenders.” We shy away from that language today because we want to think more highly of ourselves, but this is a realistic, biblical picture of humanity, what theologians would classically call a “low anthropology,” or a low view of humanity. And as much as we might not like it, this is the view of human beings taught by Scripture and the great Christian tradition that we stand beneath as Anglican Christians. What is wrong with the world? God help me, I am.

Of course, this is true of all people, not only Christians, and unlike those who are outside of Christ, those who are in Christ know that it is actually part of really good news, because we are forgiven. God knows us completely, better than we know ourselves, God loves us completely, better than we love ourselves; God forgives us completely, better than we forgive ourselves.

One of the great gifts of following Christ as an Anglican is that there is literally not a single service in our Prayer Book tradition that does not include a confession of sin, and a declaration of God’s forgiveness and absolution; which is just as real as our sins, and speaks the final word about them. With that in mind, I hope the opening collect for our service this morning was really familiar to you, it is the prayer that is prayed by lay people after they confess their sins from our Morning and Evening Prayer services.

And if today we find ourselves struggling with what to do with the mighty, god-like power of our tongues, I can think of no better place to begin than here. We ask for God’s grace to direct our speech, to light our tongues with the fires of His life-giving Spirit instead of the hell-fire that lights even our sweetest speech, that is not a bad place to start: seeking grace, asking forgiveness, and in turn being a people who are quick to forgive as we have been forgiven: “O merciful Lord, grant to your faithful people pardon and peace. That we may be cleansed from all our sins and serve you with a quiet mind. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, creators of the worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth respectively, begin their stories of these worlds with a creation account, and something these two creation accounts share in common is that in both the creator God sings creation into existence. Both Aslan and Illuvitar (that is the name of Middle Earth’s god, and to answer your next question, “no” I was not very popular in high school), both of these gods resemble and amplify the story of creation found in Genesis by singing creation into existence as God speaks it into existence. Both authors, who were borrowing heavily from one another, explain the story of the fall and entrance of sin into their respective worlds in similar ways as well: it is the result of angelic beings who decide to sing their own notes and their own songs, instead of harmonizing and singing with the good creator God, that a good creation turns wicked. In this way, they quite literally create alternate, evil, hellish worlds which now exist at war with the good and beautiful worlds created by God. Singing one’s own song creates another, distorted world.

This will be my final sermon on the Epistle of James for some time, as our lectionary is moving on, even if it seems like I cannot move on. The focus of my sermon this morning will be speech in James’ letter, how we speak as Christians, a major topic in the letter of James. God has called all of us to closely examine our manner of speaking, to and about one another, and this is a defining marker of life in the Church, that we would speak with caution and with grace. James says in the passage we read this morning, “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law.”

In summarizing James, I am reminded of the words of William Cavanaugh, a theologian, who writes critically of the kind of Christianity which “limits the range of Christian faith from the entire body to the space within the ears.” This is very much the message of James. And if we are to speak of the Christian faith in relation to our whole person, our entire body, James is very clear that the part of our body between our lips, our tongue is the part of our body we should be most concerned with as Christians. Why does our manner of speech (the importance of how we speak shows up constantly in James’ Letter) hold such an important place in James’ thinking about life in the church?

A meaningful and fairly obvious way to answer this question is to acknowledge that, since James was probably the same James who led a church in Jerusalem for several decades, James could speak from personal experience like any minister about the damage done in Christian communities by careless, hurtful speech. The old adage that sticks and stones may break my bones, but words cannot never hurt me is absolutely false for the church. Words can, words do, and words have destroyed christian communities.

Knowledge about the power of human speech to do tremendous evil does not only belong to Christians like us or James. I mentioned last Sunday that James is often read alongside the wisdom writers outside of the Church in the ancient Mediterranean world. Greek Philosophers also wrote a great deal about the importance of careful speech, and the conclusion of most philosophers in their reflections on speech was that a wise person does not speak very often. Practice what you preach, Fr. Matt, you may be thinking.

This is an odd perspective for Americans. We are a society that exalts extroverts and big talkers and treats quiet introverts as if there is something wrong with them. This is such a different way of treating speech from the wisdom of the ancient world, the ancients would look at us very critically. A silent person is wise because silence implies listening, you can actually learn something if you are quiet, you can actually express genuine care for another in silence. A silent person is often a person who is slow to anger, they are silent because they want to respond to you, not react to you. At the end of the day, not speaking is simply a safer way to live, for there is less possibility of doing harm when you do not speak. Brevity is best, for measured speech reflects a measured person. The maxim that “still waters run deep” was taken very seriously by the Greeks, and the Greeks were highly pessimistic about human speech, they viewed the tongue as something that mostly just causes damage and problems; damage which is near impossible to repair.

And all of this is in the background of James’ own Christian wisdom about human speech. James differs from the Greeks in their pessimism about human speech in one respect, he is even more pessimistic than ancient philosophers were about the human tongue. James agrees with everything Greek philosophers believed about speech but, unlike them, believed that human beings had no potential to actually control speech, even as Christians. So for James it was far, far better to speak less instead of more for the sake of the church. If you have ever wondered why there are monastic communities who take vows of silence, this is why. If you are bound to a life together in a Christian community where you spend every waking hour with the same people, human speech should be limited to worship and prayer; and to times of fellowship on the Sabbath; if there is to be any speaking at all, as hard as it is to digest this, there is great wisdom in this way of thinking.

So it is again worth asking why James is so pessimistic about human speech. Ultimately, James’ pessimism about speech boils down to the fact that speaking is one of the principle reasons human beings can know they are created in the image of God. For as often as we use the phrase, “image bearers,” in reference to fellow human beings, James is the only author in all of Scripture who uses this phrase. We are all made in the image of God, that comes from James. And James connects speech with God’s creative action on several occasions in this letter. For James, we are “like God,” we are “image bearers” because we can speak.

In Chapter 1 of James, James refers to the Church as a place where Christians have been given birth, “by a word of truth,” continuing this theme by calling Christians the “first fruits of creation.” Here the connection between God’s creative capacities, given to human beings as image bearers, with God’s ability to speak is explicit. It is through God’s speech that all of creation, all things visible and invisible, was made. God spoke all things into existence, and to be an image bearer of God means to share the creative capacity of speech with God. This is why the first task given to Adam in creation was the naming of all animals, and in that way Adam shared in the work of creation with God as an image-bearer.

But that is not the world we live in, is it? We live in the world of Genesis chapter 3, not Genesis chapter 2. James highlights that when sin broke into creation in the Fall, our capacity to speak and create became a capacity to speak and destroy. Much like the satanic figures in Narnia and Middle Earth, our decision not to speak the words of God and to go our own way, to be a law unto ourselves, meant that our capacity to imitate God as creators became a capacity to destroy, to distort, and to kill. In chapter 3 of James, he speaks of the tongue like a cosmic force with a power all its own, saying that the tongue is “a world of wickedness… lit by the fires of gehenna.” Gehenna is another way of describing hell, and these fires of hell are what ignite the human tongue.

This little flap in our mouths is described by James as a cosmic force with a mind of its own, lit by the very fires of hell, a part of us that is practically outside of our control. Because of our fallenness, we quite literally have the capacity to create a living hell for ourselves and others, with our tongue, with our speech. I think of the terrible dictators and politicians who have come to power through the power of their speech, specifically those who achieve power by means of appealing to prejudice and hatred. Ask the victims of the genocides that have marked most of the past 100 years about the power of the human tongue to dehumanize them, to deny their dignity as image bearers, and that end result of their world quite literally becoming hellish. This monstrous power is all too real, and sadly, the tongue’s destructive power is not only evident in the world, but also in the church.

The image of the human tongue lit by the fires of hell is so provocative and disturbing, and it reminds me very much of something we are very familiar with as Westerners, wildfires. In 2011, the Wallow Fire burned through one of my favorite places in my home state of Arizona, the White Mountains which rise up in the Northeastern part of the State and spread into New Mexico. It is still, to date, the largest wildfire in Arizona history, and it began when two avid outdoorsmen who love Arizona’s mountainous wilderness started a campfire when they were not supposed to. They had it going for a night while they camped, put it out that night, and left for a hike the next morning, and did not realize that they had in fact not properly put the fire out the night before until they returned to their camp from the hike to find it engulfed in flames. They immediately called a Ranger Station, but by then it was too late, hell had broken loose, and something those two loved dearly, half a million acres of Alpine forest, suffered greatly as a result. Tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of years of creation was undone in a couple of weeks. The two men, who are today deeply remorseful about what they did, are in a payment plan with the state of Arizona to repay the nearly 4 million dollars in damages they owe the state. All of this in spite of their intentions, in spite of their love for the forest, the deed had still been done.

This is so much like the power of the tongue in the church. We speak, and there is no putting it back, there is no way to reverse the beginning of a fire, there is no way to reverse words spoken, emails, or texts sent in anger. And the damage is done by people who love the church. We do not harm the church because we hate the church, we may even deceive ourselves into believing our wicked speech is for the sake of the church, but our intentions really do not matter. So we should indeed approach our phone calls, emails, and conversations as we would hold a flame in a dry Alpine forest; for these small, ordinary, normal interactions are capable of igniting a destructive flame that can consume God’s people, even and precisely when you do not mean or want that to happen.

A little over 100 years ago, a London newspaper held an essay contest, asking that all applicants answer the question, “what is wrong with the world today?” The winning essay was written by the satirist and public Christian intellectual G.K. Chesterton, and it reads, “Dear sirs, I am. Sincerely, G.K. Chesterton.” I am what is wrong with the world.

If there is anything that we might take away from our time in James’ letter, it should begin with this, we are what is wrong with the world. We do live in a time when an answer like the one offered by Chesterton would be laughed at or ignored by most people with any interest in answering the question what is wrong with the world today. We are always told to look outside of ourselves to find the source of our problems. It is all the millennials fault, all the baby boomers fault, all this system, or that system, we are all victims of something outside of us; and do not think that Christians are not capable of this way of thinking, for Christians in our society are more guilty of this than most.

We fixate on the notion that we are under attack from the world, and paint ourselves to be victims of the culture and the times, victims of the media and the universities; and all of these outside reasons are the reasons why our numbers are continually declining; but James would say to us when we think this way, “you are what is wrong with the world and you are what is wrong with the church!” God’s people are not victims of the time, but of ourselves; and this was James’ message to a church that existed under intense, violent, bloody, and fatal persecution, not just pressure from cultural forces. In the birth of the early church, with all of the pains that she endured from outside pressures, when the blood of martyrs was spilling, God’s word to the Church through James was not “go defend yourselves,” or “find someone who will defend you,” it was, “be careful how you speak, Christians. Because we are the problem.”

Now, that may be hard to hear, but it should not surprise us at all, precisely because we are Christians. Don’t we always have something to confess when we pray together before the Eucharist, “we have sinned against you in thought word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone?” I always do. If you grew up with an older version of the Prayer Book than ‘79, do you remember that part in the confession when we say “there is no health in us,” for we are “miserable offenders.” We shy away from that language today because we want to think more highly of ourselves, but this is a realistic, biblical picture of humanity, what theologians would classically call a “low anthropology,” or a low view of humanity. And as much as we might not like it, this is the view of human beings taught by Scripture and the great Christian tradition that we stand beneath as Anglican Christians. What is wrong with the world? God help me, I am.

Of course, this is true of all people, not only Christians, and unlike those who are outside of Christ, those who are in Christ know that it is actually part of really good news, because we are forgiven. God knows us completely, better than we know ourselves, God loves us completely, better than we love ourselves; God forgives us completely, better than we forgive ourselves.

One of the great gifts of following Christ as an Anglican is that there is literally not a single service in our Prayer Book tradition that does not include a confession of sin, and a declaration of God’s forgiveness and absolution; which is just as real as our sins, and speaks the final word about them. With that in mind, I hope the opening collect for our service this morning was really familiar to you, it is the prayer that is prayed by lay people after they confess their sins from our Morning and Evening Prayer services.

And if today we find ourselves struggling with what to do with the mighty, god-like power of our tongues, I can think of no better place to begin than here. We ask for God’s grace to direct our speech, to light our tongues with the fires of His life-giving Spirit instead of the hell-fire that lights even our sweetest speech, that is not a bad place to start: seeking grace, asking forgiveness, and in turn being a people who are quick to forgive as we have been forgiven: “O merciful Lord, grant to your faithful people pardon and peace. That we may be cleansed from all our sins and serve you with a quiet mind. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.

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