Sermon for September 16, 2012

Sermon for Pentecost 16, Proper 19, Sept. 16, 2012

St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas

Sermon Text: James 3:1-12

Sermon Theme: “The Tongue Is a Rudder”

(Sources: Emphasis Commentary online; Emphasis Illustrations online; Concordia Pulpit Resources, Vol. 22, Part 4, Series B; original ideas; Anderson’s Cycle B Preaching Workbook)

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

Our sermon text for today was written by James, the brother of Jesus. It’s a very powerful piece of writing and seems more like a book of proverbs rather than a letter. It could certainly be called the Wisdom Literature of the New Testament!

It must have been exciting growing up in Mary and Joseph’s home with Jesus as your brother, — what great theological discussions they must have had. They were a devout Jewish family, regularly observing the Passover, and familiar with the Books of Moses and other sacred writings. You remember how the precocious Jesus had awed the rabbis, that is, teachers in the Temple, when He was only 12 years old. Although he was late in accepting his brother as the promised Messiah, it’s not surprising that the brother of Jesus could write with such powerful words!

Wisdom literature provides all readers much food for thought, and our text is no exception. Our text speaks to and about rabbis (teachers) specifically, but also, on a more general level it speaks to and about all of us, whether teachers or not.

While we can read this text, thinking of teachers in our public schools, or parents as teachers, for caring adults as teachers, James was speaking to the followers of Jesus spreading the Word of God to others. “Not many of you should become teachers,” he begins, and he’s talking about teachers in a theocracy, — rabbis, — for whom no teaching was done apart from religious instruction.

James continues, “for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” The rabbi has to be judged with much stricter standards, because his position empowers him to teach either lies or the truth. While Benjamin Franklin told us in his book of wise sayings that “honesty is the best policy,“ James would take that a big step forward, and tell us, “Honesty is a religious obligation!“ And that’s no small matter. Probably as a bit of self-confession, James confesses that we “all” make mistakes. The person who makes no mistakes is like a well trained horse, completely under the control of its master, our master of course being God, through the person of Jesus. He is our perfection.

You see, James, the brother of Jesus, became the leader of the early Christian church in Jerusalem. When the apostles had gathered together to resolve some issues, James presided over their gathering. It’s possible that this letter was written as a treatise at that gathering and sent out with a short letter found in the book of Acts.

As would be expected, there was a close relationship between James and Jesus, and it’s not surprising that James’ letter would sound similar to Jesus’ sermon on the Mount.

Because of the enormous impact the teacher has on others, that fact makes the tongue, — a symbol of the spoken word, — an enormously powerful object. James compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship. The rudder is a small device but has the power to control the movement of the entire watercraft. The tongue is also small but has great power to move people and events. James keys in on the destructive power of the tongue, yet observes that it also has great power to influence people for good.

We see the emphasis James puts on the destructive power of the tongue when he says in our text, “And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.”

World War II gave us an incredible example of the power of the tongue, for evil and for good.

Nazi leader, Adolph Hitler, knew all about “the tongue is a fire,” Just look at that old documentary footage of his Nuremberg rallies: the clipped, staccato speech, the eyes glowing like two black coals, the angry forefinger stabbing the air — then wave upon wave of adulation and adoration from a crowd on fire, shouting, “Sieg heil! Sieg heil!”

It was merely words which Hitler spoke to the crowd, nothing brilliant, nothing intellectual, not even very intelligent, — yet that tongue packed sufficient power to set a continent ablaze, and then a world ablaze. Millions and millions of people were killed in the raging fires of the Holocaust which followed.

On the other side of the English Channel stood Winston Churchill, — hand on hip, watch on fob, bulldog chin extended. They used to say Churchill’s tongue could cause more damage to the Nazi cause than a V-1 rocket. In the darkest days of the war, all over England the British people huddled around their radio cabinets , straining to hear what he would say next. James says the tongue is like the rudder of a ship: small in size, but oh-so-important!

Churchill began his service as prime minister by announcing, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” Can you imagine a politician today getting away with that brand of brutal honesty? (How would that sound bite play on the evening news?) But the British people loved it. Churchill told it like it was.

Just a month later, two days before the French surrendered to the Nazis, and the Spitfire pilots stood alone against the mighty Luftwaffe, Churchill came on the radio again. He told the People, “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

A blazing fire; a tried-and-true, unfailing rudder, the human tongue may be applied to the cause of evil, or of good!

Not too long ago, the U. S. News and World Report magazine ran an article reporting that Americans are now so sharp-tongued, they are no longer civil to each other. People today treat each other rudely and no longer have respect for one another. Ninety percent of Americans said that loss of civility was a serious problem in this country, but only one person in a hundred admitted that he was part of the problem. We see that fault in others, but not in ourselves.

Whether it’s teaching the Word or engaging someone in a conversation, there are only 5 basic responses that we can make to others and they to us. It’s necessary to be aware of these responses as they control, curtail or unleash your tongue. They are 1, evaluate; 2, instruct; 3 support; 4, probe; and 5, understand.

When we evaluate, we set ourselves up as judge over the person. Often, when we evaluate a person’s speech or actions, we shut down communication and throw barbs into the other person’s soul. According to one poll, 80 percent of what Americans do or say is evaluative, which helps us to understand the loss of civility mentioned by U. S. News and World Report.

When we instruct, we lift up our position to that of teacher. When we express support, we approach the other person as friend. When we probe (a positive response in spite of the word‘s negative connotation), we seek further involvement, and bring the person into our hearts. Only through instructing, supporting, and probing do we come to understand.

We can see how these responses work or don’t work in the mission field. Palmer Ofuoku, a Nigerian Pastor, tells how when the first missionaries came to his village, only a few became Christians, but not many. Eighty percent of what those missionaries did was evaluate, they judged and they demanded.

Years later, another set of missionaries came instructing, supporting, probing, and understanding. They helped the villagers when they were sick (supporting), expressed concern about the villagers’ families and their activities (probing), and let them know that they genuinely cared (understanding). Many villagers became Christians. Pastor Ofuoku said, “They built a bridge of friendship to us, and Jesus walked across.”

Our Savior Jesus Christ lived and died and rose exactly because our tongues are “a fire, a world of unrighteousness.” He bridled His tongue even in the face of death so that we might receive His righteousness as He now lives in us. It is because of Him that we are able to bridle our tongues and are enabled to instruct, support, probe, and understand. Amen.