19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
Last weekend Sonya and I took a little trip to celebrate her birthday. We traveled south to Asheville, NC, where we enjoyed the finest of cuisine, beautiful scenery, and some strange looking people. Apparently a number of things have come into fashion and I must have missed the memo. Women, it is now popular to have large hoops in the septum of your nose, much like what I saw growing up on the farm in the nose of the bulls. Men, to be fashionable, you now must grow out your beards and your hair. And beards may not be trimmed, unless they are trimmed into some pointed shape. Hair must be pulled up into what is commonly called a “man bun.” Oh yes, on this trip we probably spent about as much time looking at the interesting people as we spent looking at the mountains.
Thankfully, my mother taught me a little something called “manners” when I was growing up. She taught me that it isn’t polite to stare, and of course that if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
I realize that I am showing my age when I start to comment on things like the fashion choices of young people today. But these septum rings and man buns are just a little bit weird to me. Of course, if you read Genesis 24 you will find that when Jacob’s servant was sent to find him a wife, they did not give her a ring for her finger, but a nose ring, so I guess perhaps it is biblical.
My friends, you can wear whatever you want, adorn yourself however you desire, and I will promise to treat you the same as I would if you were wearing a suit and tie. It is tempting to mock people or even gossip about them when they look different, dress different, or act different from what we might expect. But regardless of how people look, act, or dress, we are called to love people because they are beautiful simply on account of the fact that they are created in the image of God. It’s okay to think they look weird, but we must not allow that to affect how we treat one another.
This seems quite simple and straight forward to me, but like so many other things in this world, it is often easier said than done. We know that we are supposed to watch our tongues (everyone stick out your tongues and watch them for a second!). But it is so easy to get caught up in the moment or caught up in the crowd and just go along with it. So today we are going to take what our mothers probably taught us all those years ago and look at it from a theological and ethical perspective. And maybe we can refine that teaching a bit, because sometimes we do have to say things that aren’t necessarily nice, but we still have to say them nicely. Or to be more precise, we need to say them in love.
I remember when I first really got serious about following Jesus questioning a number of things that I had been taught or that I had picked up from those around me. I knew that grace was a gift from God and that there was nothing that I could do to earn it. That much was clear. Some would even go so far as to say that there is nothing that you can do to lose it. What I soon began to struggle with, however, was ethics. Why, if grace is freely given, and possibly irrevocable, do we need to live in a certain way? I’ve known Christians that did not think that ethics were all that important because of grace, so they did some things that we as a church might not endorse and claimed that it was okay because they were under the grace of God.
I get that, but I disagree. When you operate out of that mindset, you are reducing Christianity to a way to get out eternal conscious punishment, or to get “saved.” Sure, if Christianity is just about getting saved, then I guess ethics really don’t matter. But Christianity is more than just that get out of hell free card. Yes, grace is of the highest importance, but ethics still matter. How we live matters.
When I ask today why ethics matter, I tend to put our ethical practices into three different categories: for the good of others and/or ourselves, for the glory of God, and as a witness to God’s kingdom. Now these categories are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they overlap with one another. Perhaps you are familiar with Venn diagrams. A Venn diagram represents a number of different sets of information, data, or numbers in a series of closed, overlapping circles. My ethical Venn diagram would show these three areas overlapping in the middle.
So let’s take for instance the commandment “Thou shall not use the Lord’s name in vain.” Why does this matter? Is it for the good of others or ourselves? I don’t think it would cause anyone any physical harm if we said God’s name excessively. Is it a witness to God’s kingdom? I don’t think that we are making God’s kingdom known by not throwing around God’s name in a carefree way. No, the command to not use God’s name in vain is about God’s glory and reverence for God.
Now consider the commandment to love our enemies. I think that loving one’s enemies reveals the glory of God. Loving my enemies isn’t something that I normally would do, but because of who God is, I try. Is it for my own good or the good of others? Possibly, if we don’t kill someone else, it is probably to their advantage, though it may not be to your advantage. Is it a witness to the kingdom of God? I think that this is the primary reason why we are to love our enemies. In God’s kingdom, we serve a God who laid down his life for us while we were yet sinners. We serve a God who chose not to retaliate but rather allowed others to take his life when he could have called down legions of angels to do battle. I would say that loving our enemies fits into all three categories, but is most heavily weighted in the area of witness to the kingdom of God. Or if you wish to put a fancy name to it, we are to live as a proto-eschatological witness to the kingdom of God. We enact today that which is to come.
So to all of those who say that once you are saved to can live anyway you want, I guess I would say, “Sure, you can. But should you?”
Today’s passage is from the book of James, and James is known for coming across heavily on the works end of the spectrum. Here we are in the first chapter of this book of the Bible and James is saying that we should watch our tongues. Let’s work backwards with this one and begin close to the end, at verse 26: “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.”
What can I say about that?! I’m not sure that I want to say anything more because I’m afraid I might be accused of not keeping a tight rein on my tongue! So for the next 20 minutes or so we’ll just look at one another. But come on now, what does James know anyway? It isn’t like he is the brother of Jesus or anything.
I think that James may be using some very strong language here to make a point, and he isn’t trying to say that the words that we say are more powerful than the grace of God. But using that three category system that I showed you a few minutes ago, why does it matter if we watch what we say or not. Do the words that we say have the ability to bring glory to God or to revere him? Yes. Do the words that we say have the ability to hurt others or ourselves? Absolutely. And can our words be a witness to the kingdom of God? Without a doubt. So maybe I won’t say it with as much intensity as James did, but what we say matters.
As I mentioned, my mother used to say, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” And maybe that is a good rule of thumb to live by, but it isn’t exactly biblical, because there are times when we are to say things that aren’t nice. If we believe that a loved one is doing something that is either causing pain now or will lead down a path of pain, we are called to speak out about it. And it might not be a “nice” conversation. But I think that Matthew 18 applies in this context, where Jesus says that if a brother or sister is sinning against you, you should go to that person and have a conversation about it. It doesn’t feel nice to have someone tell you that they are sinning, but we need to do it.
Let’s jump to verse 19, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” I know how hard this is to actually live out! But if you think that I am failing to do this, I hope that you will come to me, in the spirit of Matthew 18, and tell me. Kevin, you’re not listening! You’re getting too angry! Stop talking and listen for once! And if you ever think that I am failing to speak in love, please let me know. This may not mean that I always say nice things, but I do need to say these things nicely. And I’m beginning to wonder if there is anything more counter cultural today than that.
This Tuesday is a special day in Virginia as we are a part of what is commonly referred to as “Super Tuesday.” A number of states have already held their primary votes, and a few have even chosen to caucus. We are nine months away from choosing the next president of the United States, and things are heating up.
I’ll admit that I tend to enjoy some of the politicking that I see online and in the news. Some Facebook memes make me laugh out loud, even though I would never share them myself. But then again, I slow down to look at car accidents, too.
It is interesting to think about the history of Mennonites and politics. A generation or two ago it would have been hard to find a Mennonite who voted, particularly not in a presidential election. That was seen as worldly and getting caught up in the affairs of the world. Furthermore, when you vote for a president, you are voting for a commander in chief. More recently, many Mennonites have recognized voting as a way to influence this world and make it more like God had intended creation to be. Often this view conveniently lines up with our pre-existing political leanings, but we all knew that God was a Republican, right? Or is God a Democrat? Clearly, God would vote for Ted Cruz, or maybe Bernie Sanders. But definitely not that other guy…or maybe?
If you are going to vote for a presidential candidate, please don’t claim that your candidate is “the Christian candidate.” Each candidate probably holds to a number of principles that Christ taught, but not a one of them is completely perfect. I don’t think that you have to vote to be a good Christian, and I’m not going to say that you can’t vote and be a good Christian. If you feel led to offer your opinion in the matter, feel free to do so.
What gets to me every year is the trash talking, name calling, and finger pointing. If we just consider today’s scripture and listen to the debates, we will have to soon question whether these candidates have, in the words of James, a truly worthless religion. Because there does not seem to be any attempt to hold their tongues. Nobody is slow to speak, quick to listen, and slow to become angry!
But this is politics, and I am sure that we have all come to expect this from politicians. I know I have! What really bothers me is when I find my Christian friends getting caught up in it all.
Social media can be a great thing for sharing recipes, pictures of children, news, and other fun things. But it can also be a way to propagate hatred and fear. Just this week I saw a number of memes posted by my friends that attacked the “other” political party. Again, these things can be kind of funny, and that is usually how my friends intend them. But I wonder, is this really helping the matter? Or is it just making things worse?
I know that I am interpreting today’s scripture a bit, because you can hold your tongue and let your fingers do the talking on social media! But I believe that we must not only be careful what we say, but what we share and what we “like.”
When you see something on Facebook and you consider sharing it, ask yourself how that fits into the three-categories of ethics that I presented you with earlier. Does it show reverence for God? Is it hurtful to me or to others? And Does it bear witness to the kingdom of God? I would guess that most of our political memes do not.
But I want you to be sure of one thing. I’m not taking the route that my mother taught me and that your mother probably taught you. I’m not simply saying that if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all. I think that it is good to have conversations, face-to-face conversations, with people about issues like immigration, world religions, and healthcare. It is absolutely fine to disagree with certain candidates on these issues, and it is just fine to disagree with me! But rather than calling someone a stupid head because they disagree with you, have a conversation about why you disagree. We must love our enemies, and this includes the enemies on the other end of the political spectrum. And just as Matthew 18 tells us to go to someone when they sin against us to have a personal conversation about the issue, if you feel called to have a conversation with someone about a political issue, go to them in person, don’t post it online for all to see! And remember, even though everything you might have to say isn’t “nice,” that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to say it nicely.
I hope that you will all stand with me as we continue in this perpetual thing we call an election and refuse to participate in the negativity, the name calling, and the mud slinging. James tells us that if we cannot rein in our tongue that our religion is worthless. Let us reign in our tongues because we serve the one who will reign forever and ever. Amen.