The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 12 September 2021
A Sermon on James 3:1-12 by Samuel Zumwalt
James 3:1-12 © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers]
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 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. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
THE WORD OF GOD: TAMES
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
My mother never had an unspoken thought. Invariably, when they were together, her beloved older sister Kath would admonish: “Harriet, you don’t have to say everything that is on your mind.” But despite all her best intentions, Mama just couldn’t stop, at times, from wounding with her tongue. It got worse with age, and she would say: “Now that I’m old, I don’t have to hold my tongue.” But the truth was she never really had.
We loved Mama’s best, when she could be so funny, so musical, so giving, and so inquisitive about the world around her. We could tease her and eventually she would be able to laugh at herself. But Mama had a tongue sharper than a Ginsu knife, and, with her words, she could wound those closest to her. I can still hear some of her most cutting remarks to me as a child, and the deep hurt from them had a profound effect on the first forty-eight years of my life. With the help of a pastoral counselor, I came to understand this, and was able to learn to love that deeply wounded woman and to let go of trying to get her approval through the other women in my life.
My father left many thoughts unspoken. He had spent most of his life trying to get his mother to love him, and our vivacious Mama stole his heart when they fell in love on an Army hospital ship during WWII. I suspect that Mama’s best was like cool water to a man crawling through a desert. But Dad, who was closer in age to Mom’s sister Kath, was horrified, as well, by some of the remarks that came out of Mama’s mouth. When he was angriest, Dad didn’t speak, because he knew that wounding words can never be recalled. His silence was not the withdrawal of love or intended as punishment. He taught that silence does not wound nearly as much as speech. My counselor taught me that I can listen, love, and pray better when I am quiet amidst stormy words. Sometimes, I actually remember that.
I learned many years ago that self-disclosure, talking about the wounds of our own lives to others, helps others to think about their own lives. Understanding where we’ve come from helps us better to deal with our lives today. That’s as true of Christians as it is of all people.
St. James, the Lord’s brother, has in mind the 8th commandment against false testimony as further commentary on the 2nd commandment against misusing God’s name. Cursing others does not reflect well on ourselves as children of God. Indeed, our tongues may well give the devil a foothold in the lives of those who hardly need an excuse to stay away from the services of God’s house. I decided at 16 that I didn’t want to be a pastor, because our pastor had a hellish tongue. If they let him into the ministry, I didn’t want any part of it.
Twenty years ago, a recovering alcoholic in my former congregation once said to me: “I find that when I’m cursing more; I’m praying less.”
American author Mark Twain popularized the British saying: “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” He was right. Think of how malleable statistics can be depending on the context. Politicians can use surveys not for the purpose of truth-telling but for power-grabbing. How often we hear things like, “Seventy percent of Americans…” or “A majority of Americans…,” but statistics like those are only as good as the questions asked, how they are asked, who is asked, and who does the asking. Citing statistics is not a matter of stating irrefutable truth.
St. James says, “… The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.” We live in a culture so steeped in lies that it can be crazy-making. Nobel and Pulitzer prizes are awarded on the basis of lies, damned lies, and statistics. This country was not founded on slavery, but the 1619 Project was given an award based on lies and now is being taught as if it were true. If you listen to older African American scholars, such as Thomas Sowell, the economist, or Bob Woodard, the longtime civil rights activist, they will confirm that the 1619 Project is based on lies.
Today, the terrorist attacks twenty years ago that killed thousands of Americans and emotionally wounded even more are reframed by some as if radicalized Muslims were not the perpetrators. The same radicalized Muslims of the Taliban that are beheading, raping, and beating Afghanis are being described as businesslike and professional by our government’s spokespersons. Lies, damned lies, and statistics do not become truer the more they are repeated by politicians, the media, and others.
Our Lord Jesus Christ says that Satan is the father of lies (John 8:44) and the thief who comes to steal, kill, and destroy (Jn 10:10). Was it not lies that dragged our Lord Jesus before the Jewish leaders of the Sanhedrin and before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate? Was it not lies that caused John the Baptist’s beheading, that seduced Judas into betraying Jesus, that were at the heart of Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus, and that led to Paul’s beatings, jailing, and death? Evil takes root when lies are embraced, such as, that life only begins at birth, or, that we are whoever we think we are apart from the biological reality in our DNA. Lies are not from God. Ever.
Churches have been ripped apart by lies. Three to five people in any congregation, if allowed to sow seeds of destruction, can destroy a pastor’s ministry, can create suspicion and hardness of heart between people who have known each other for years, and can shrink and even kill a once vibrant congregation. The milking of resentments by those with an axe to grind comes, James tells us, from untamed tongues driven by restless evil and full of deadly poison. This ought not to be so.
Our Lord Jesus Christ was killed by the lie for the sake of us sinners. He died at the hand of people immersed in lies, owned by lies, and driven by lies. But Jesus the Word of God, Truth incarnate, won even as He breathed His last, saying, “It is accomplished.” The lie killed, but the Truth was not conquered. He is risen from the dead, and He is Lord. Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. Those who love evil can run only so long before they run no longer. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the Truth is not in us. Lord, have mercy!
James warns that pastors and theologians will be judged more strictly by God for what we teach. The content of our preaching and teaching will be measured against God’s Word, and those who have taught falsely will be condemned for the damage done to Christ’s Church. In order to tell the story rightly, fifty-one Sundays out of the year we say one of the three creeds of the Church, summaries of what the Bible teaches. In every worship service, we recite the Lord’s Prayer and beg our heavenly Father to deliver us from evil. Each Sunday at St. Matthew’s, we recite a portion of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, so that we can better understand what God’s Word means for our lives. As Luke has told us in Acts 2, it matters that we “repent and are baptized” … that we “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread, and the prayers” (2:38, 42) Without God’s Word and Sacraments rightly proclaimed and administered, we will not be able to distinguish the Truth from lies, the Word of prophecy from the devil’s.
Why do we practice the Christian faith? Say it with me. So that it will be there when we need it. How do we practice the Christian faith? Say it with me: “I will strive to pray daily, worship weekly, read the Bible, serve at and beyond St. Matthew’s, be in relationship to encourage spiritual growth in others, and give of my time, talents, and resources.” How will we be able to live as God’s people and teach children and those new to the Christian faith to live as God’s people in a culture of lies, damned lies, and statistics… if we do not practice the Christian faith in community, day by day, week by week, and year by year? It matters what we hear and say.
The Word of God tames, James would tell us, by saying no to the lie but yes to sinners like you and me. The Word of God must wound and kill the old sinner in you and me as we are buried with Christ in Baptism, then heal us with the Medicine of Immortality that grants us forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and ultimate healing. In the resurrection, Mama will only be able to pray, praise, and give thanks, and Daddy will only be silent in awestruck wonder as He is enveloped by God’s love. And what of you and yours, dear ones? What wounds do you look forward to being healed?
We are two weeks away from the most momentous congregational meeting in our 129-year history. We began out of a German congregation as the first English-speaking Lutheran parish in the area. We moved from 4th street, to 17th and Ann, then to this site when it was on a two-lane road cutting through a pine forest. We suffered the sudden death of two beloved pastors, Charles McCombs and Harold McSwain. We have seen small groups depart in 2010 and 2019. We have been affiliated with the United Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the South, the United Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church in America, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. How we will be affiliated next year depends on what we decide as a congregation on September 26 at 1:30 p.m. and, then, perhaps on what the North Carolina Synod Council decides in December. Change is a given in this life. All are born. All of us die.
We are brothers and sisters in Christ. We are people of the Truth and not people of the lie. Even in disagreement, we are not enemies. Even when contending for the Truth, we are not without sin. For, as we confess in several different ways, we are in bondage to sin, and only Christ our Lord can free us day by day, week by week, and year by year.
I grew up attending the Lutheran church with Mama and the Baptist church with Daddy. We went to our Sicilian grandparents’ Roman Catholic services whenever our relatives from that side of the family died. I was baptized, confirmed, and vicared in Missouri Synod churches, was ordained in one of the predecessors of the ELCA, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. I served for six years in a Lutheran Church in America congregation, and have served former LCA and American Lutheran Church congregations within the ELCA. So, I have served my entire ministry in this denomination or one of its predecessor bodies, and I have yet to see a perfect congregation, yet to see a perfect pastor, and yet to see a perfect denomination. We are, as Luther said, a hospital for sinners not a haven for saints. So, I have no illusions about denominations, and I hope you won’t either. However strongly you feel attached or drawn to one or another Lutheran church body, please don’t lie to yourself or to your neighbor about what changing denominations will be. And, let’s be clear, this isn’t about me. Someday I’m going to die or perhaps retire (although with a 14-year-old daughter it won’t be anytime soon), and, then, St. Matthew’s will receive its next pastor from whichever denomination we are affiliated with (that’s what this is all about)… unless, of course, the Lord returns in glory to judge the living and the dead. And, then, as shocking as this may be, we won’t be Lutherans anymore!
I beg of you, dear ones, speak more words that heal than those that wound and kill. Yes, we need to be able to discern lies. But James reminds us that we ought not to curse our neighbors with the same mouth that praises God. As that recovering alcoholic told me years ago: “I find that when I’m cursing more; I’m praying less.” Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
©Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS
St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina USA
The Word of God: Tames
“O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.” (The Daily Prayer of the Church, 620-621).
James 3:1 “… for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”
St. John Chrysostom [Late 4th – early 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople, Turkey]: “Teaching without setting an example is not only worthless but also brings great punishment and judgment on the one who leads his life with such heedlessness” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: James, 36).
James 3:5 “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things…”
St. Jerome [4th century translator of the Latin Vulgate Bible]: “The sword kills the body, but the tongue kills the soul… What more monstrous sin is there than blasphemy against God? The devil did not fall because he committed theft, murder or adultery; he fell because of his tongue” (39).
James 3:5 “... How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!”
St. Bede the Venerable [Late 7th – early 8th century British ecclesiastical historian]: “This fire is the exact opposite of the saving fire which is also like a tongue and which consumes all the dross and chaff of our vices, revealing the secrets of the heart” (39).
James 3:8 “but no human being can tame the tongue…”
St. John Chrysostom: “The tongue is a piercing sword. But let us not wound others with it; rather let us cut off our own gangrene” (40).
James 3:8 “…It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
St. Bede the Venerable: “It is clear from this that a heart which is not right with God cannot bring forth the words or the works of righteousness. On the contrary, if the heart is wicked, everything it says and does will be wicked also” (41).
James 3:11“Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?”
St. Hilary [Early 5th century Bishop of Arles, France]: “The spring is the heart of man, the flowing stream of water is his speech, and the opening through which it pours is his mouth. The sweet water is sound doctrine, while the bitter water is just the opposite” (41).
Do I understand that my tongue can easily become destructive under the evil one’s influence?
The Ten Commandments
AS THE HEAD OF THE HOUSEHOLD SHOLD TEACH THEM IN A SIMPLE WAY TO HIS HOUSEHOLD.
The Second Commandment
You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
What does this mean?
“We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use satanic arts, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks” (Luther’s Small Catechism).
- Pray for every unbaptized child you know and for the child’s parents, too.
- Pray for your unchurched loved ones and friends. Invite one or more of them to worship.
- Commit yourself to the study of God’s Word at St. Matthew’s. Adult classes with Becky Howard (Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together) and Pr. Sam (1st Corinthians) begin at 9:45 a.m. Crossways Bible Study continues with Unit 53 on Wednesday at 6 p.m. and on Thursday at 10 a.m. in McCombs Fellowship Hall.
- Practice every day saying the second commandment and its explanation. Rehearse it with others in your household or with a Christian friend over the phone. Break down what God wants.
- Set aside time daily, preferably first thing, but when you are able to focus, to hear the Word of God, to reflect upon that Word, and to ask the Holy Spirit to grant you grace to be shaped by and conformed to that Word. See daily Bible readings at www.stmatthewsch.org. Daily lectionary readings are on p.184 in the front of the Lutheran Book of Worship (Year One, Week of 16 Pentecost).
For Husbands and Wives
Repeat daily: “I (name) take you (name) to be my wedded wife (husband), to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge you my faith.”