The following is the text of a sermon I preached in chapel at United Theological Seminary on September 12, 2018. I don’t normally post sermons on my blog, but a few people have asked me for the text of this one. The biblical texts are Proverbs 1:20-33 and James 3:1-12.
Years ago I was a volunteer in a homeless ministry in downtown Dallas. The church that hosted the ministry would hold a lunch and worship service for homeless people on Saturdays. Each week we had a different preacher.
One week we had invited a retired minister to bring the message. As he approached the podium I surveyed the room. There were fifty or so homeless people there. Some looked exhausted, some scared, some strung out. They needed a word of hope.
The text the preacher chose was Matthew 5:3-11, the Beatitudes, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. (Career advice: if you can’t preach on the Beatitudes, you might consider a different vocation.) And as he launched into his sermon, the preacher began by explaining that the Sermon on the Mount was not a single sermon that Jesus preached, but a collection of sayings from the hypothetical Q document, drawn together by an anonymous redactor whom we today call “Matthew.”
That was it. They were done… tuned out. No one was the slightest bit interested in what he had to say, including me. He had an opportunity to preach the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ to a group of people in dire need of a word of hope, but he did not seize the moment. He had the opportunity to offer them Christ, but instead he offered them redaction criticism.
This man had certainly been to seminary. I’m sure he had studied biblical criticism and contemporary theology throughout his long career as a pastor. No doubt, he was smart…but there’s a difference between being smart and being wise. Being wise in that moment would have meant putting aside all the raw data that he thought made him smart, and to speak a words of love, truth, and salvation–in other words, the Gospel.
Biblical Wisdom (Proverbs)
Biblical wisdom isn’t something we just pick up on our own. It’s of course common to talk about growing wise as we get older. Indeed, some people do, though some people seem to keep making the same mistakes over and over. Nevertheless, even if we do learn things as we go through the school of life, that’s still not necessarily the same as Godly wisdom.
Scripture teaches us that wisdom is a gift. Godly wisdom is something we receive from God, and it is markedly different from the wisdom of this world.
In Jewish literature wisdom is sometimes personified as a master worker beside God. Wisdom shapes the world, and when you and I live in keeping with wisdom’s intention, we may be called wise. To the extent that we don’t, we are foolish. If we seek wisdom, we may learn from her. And if we don’t, our lives will bear that out.
Wisdom says in Proverbs 1:23,
Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.
Here we learn that wisdom wants to be our teacher. She wants us to heed her words, and she is frustrated that we do not do so (vv. 29-31).
Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the Lord,
would have none of my counsel,
and despised all my reproof,
therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
and be sated with their own devices.
There is a price for rejecting God’s wisdom.
C. S. Lewis once said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”
We can do things God’s way, or we can do things our way. And most of the time, it seems, human beings choose the latter.
How do we get wisdom?
John Wesley had three General Rules for the Methodist societies: Do no harm, do good, and attend upon all the ordinances of God.
The first two seem so simple–until we start to think about them more deeply. How do we avoid doing harm? What kinds of behaviors are harmful? What does it mean to do good? How do we even know what “good” is? There are competing visions of both harm and good in our culture.
Now, far be it from me to offer even a suggestion to Mr. Wesley, who is one of my great models for the Christian life. But it seems that the third rule should precede the first two: attend upon all the ordinances of God. What does this mean? It means praying, fasting, attending corporate worship, reading Scripture, and receiving the sacraments.
And why should we do these things? Because through these ordinances, these means of grace, God works in our lives shaping us into the people we were always meant to be. When you receive communion, for example, you are not just remembering Christ. You are receiving Christ, and by receiving Christ you are changed. Your heart is changed. Your will, your desires… Over time, God will shape our lives, and part of what this means is that we can become wiser people. In other words, we will understand more fully what it means to do no harm, and what it means to do good, and we will have the will to do it.
The Letter of James
The Letter of James is itself an example of Wisdom literature, though unlike Proverbs it comes to us from an ancient Christian community. In James we receive some Godly advice about how to handle our speech. In other words, James shows us what wisdom looks like when it comes to the things we say to other people.
The first thing he says in this section is that teachers will be judged with greater strictness (which is great news for professors). And why will teachers be judged more strictly? The reason is that we will have considerable influence over the community of faith by the things that we teach. Our words will shape our communities, and God will hold us accountable to what we say.
Be careful, says James, if you accept the role of a teacher, because the spoken world is powerful. The tongue is a fire, and it can set a whole forest ablaze. Listen to how he describes it: “The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity.” The Greek word we translated as “iniquity” is adikías. So we might say the tongue is a world of unrighteousness, a world of injustice. “It stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.”
Remember that, when James was written, the spoken word was the primary method of communication. Today, however, the spoken word competes with the printed word, the texted word, the word that we post on social media…. We have exponentially more potential to broadcast our words than ever before in human history, which means we have exponentially more potential to do both good and harm. The tongue here simply stands for the words we communicate to other people.
How do you use your voice?
Here’s a question: When people look at your Facebook page or your Twitter profile, do they know you are a Christian? Okay, you say, I have repeatedly posted Bible verses with colorful, flowery backgrounds on my page, along with memes from my favorite preachers and theologians. Of course they know I’m a Christian.
So here’s another question, and probably a better one: If someone were to look at your Facebook or Twitter page, is it likely that that person would want to follow your God? I don’t mean you’re necessarily going to lead people to Christ through your social media posts, but in your public persona, are you an ambassador of Christ?
Or do you simply set up Christian window dressing in front of the same rancor, snark, and bitterness that has come to characterize our discourse in Western culture?
Here’s another way of getting at what James is after: How do you use your voice? To bless or to curse? To heal or to harm? To lift up or to tear down?
I openly confess that I have succumbed to the temptation to hurt someone who has hurt me, to engage in the vicious cycle of one-upsmanship. I’ve done it, and I’ve always regretted it–every single time. I know it represents a lack of wisdom on my part, and worse, it is a failure properly to represent Christ.
Still, one might ask, does James have to speak of the tongue so critically? Don’t we say good things, too? Can’t we offer praise with the tongue? Can’t we lead people to God through the spoken word?
Of course we can, and we do. Yet James also knew the nature of human beings. He understood the effect that sin has upon our thoughts, words, and deeds. So, he says of the tongue, “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” No, it ought not.
This is one of the themes that James hits several times in his letter. He refers to this at one point as being “double-minded” (James 1:8). We will what is right, but we also will what is wrong. We are the recipients of Godly wisdom, but we are tempted by worldly wisdom. Our double-mindedness comes out in the things we say.
Christians should be different.
Through the internet we have an unprecedented ability to communicate with large numbers of people. I can reach thousands of people just by typing a few letters on my phone. And yet, our churches are still declining. We are not reaching more people for Christ. We are not fulfilling the Great Commission. And why not? Perhaps one reason is that, when people look at what we write, how we speak to each other, other people don’t see Christ in us. They see the same thing as they see with everyone else.
If you follow Christ, your life should be different.
Look around at the culture we live in. Consider the hostility, the rancor, the divisiveness…. That’s our cultural normal right now: a war of words, the attempt to shame the other, the never ending quest to get the last word….
What a countercultural witness we would offer if we simply said, No. I’m not going to do that. If you insult me, I’m not going to insult you back. If you spread rumors about me, I’m going to pray for you. If you curse me, I’ll bless you.
That would be… well… weird, wouldn’t it? To see that on a large scale, to see Christians consistently using our words not to stoke the fires of anger, but to light the fire of the Holy Spirit…. I guarantee, people would notice. They would notice because it would be weird.
We would be in good company. The early Christians were an odd bunch. They didn’t worship the gods of the empire. They didn’t expose infants. They spoke of the resurrection of the body rather than a spiritual escape from the body. They had love feasts and spoke of one another as brothers and sisters. They were accused of all kinds of things. And while they were persecuted, their numbers continued to grow. They were different. They were weird. Yet all the same, people wanted to know this Christ whom they worshipped.
The early Methodists were not exactly the most conventional bunch. The Wesley brothers and their crew at Oxford were given names like Bible Moths, Supererogation Men, and even Methodists. (Seriously, these were sick burns in the eighteenth century.) And yet the countercultural movement they developed spread across England and into the new world–a movement based on discipline, accountability, holiness, and sacrificial love–and it started a revival that continues even today. The early Methodists were weird, and they were powerful.
My appeal to the church of the twenty-first century is: make Christianity weird again. Let’s not be carried along by the dictates of a culture that seems bent on never-ending conflict. Let’s not simply adopt the values we absorb through a computer screen. Let’s do something different. If they want a culture war, let’s demonstrate what it looks like to have a culture of peace. If they want to put us down, let’s show them what it looks like to build others up. If they curse us, let’s bless them. If they hate us, let’s show them what love looks like.
The Wesleys on conflict
There will always be disagreements and conflicts, and how we react within these will demonstrate whether or not we actually believe the things we say we do. John Wesley himself was worried about squabbles between his preachers.
On Jan 29, 1752, the Wesley brothers sent a list of instructions meant to address division among their preachers. They instructed them to resolve to the following:
- That we will not listen, or willing inquire after any ill concerning each other.
- That if we do hear any ill of each other, we will not be forward to believe it.
- That as soon as possible we will communicate what we hear, by speaking or writing to the person concerned.
- That till we have done this we will not write or speak a syllable of it to any other person whatsoever.
- That neither will we mention it after we have done this to any other person.
- That we will not make any exception to any of these rules, unless we think ourselves absolutely obliged in conscience to do so
(See Kenneth J. Collins and Jason E. Vickers, The Sermons of John Wesley: A Collection for the Christian Journey, 431).
The Wesleys knew that the tongue is a fire. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.
The gift of wisdom
Were this sermon being graded by Dr. Sancken, I’ll bet this is what she would ask: That’s all fine and good, but what is God doing in this sermon? Where’s the divine action?
So let’s go back to the beginning of the sermon: God’s wisdom is not gained from life experience, the school of hard knocks, or reading books. God’s wisdom is a gift. A faithful life that will draw people to Christ isn’t something we simply will into being. Such a life is something we receive.
There have been times in my life when I’ve been mad at people–really mad, to the point I would consider them enemies. And yet I know that Christ commands us–not asks us, but commands us–love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. I know from reading my Bible that I can in fact start a fire with my words if I want to, and I can burn a damaged relationship to the ground. I can allow that world of iniquity to flow forth from my fingertips as I type a beautifully crafted insult that is sure to shame the person who shamed me.
Yet I know that I’m called to something better. It may not feel better at the time, but it’s better. In those moments I simply have to be honest with God and pray, “God, I’m not feeling the love right now. I know you commanded me to love my enemies, but it’s not there. I know your word teaches us to tame the tongue, but I don’t feel even the slightest inkling of love for this person right now, and left to my own devices I know I’ll slip up and do something hurtful. So I’m asking you: change my heart. Put your wisdom into my heart, so that I can say the things you want me to say, feel the things you want me to feel, and do the things you want me to do. Change me, Lord. I don’t want to stoke the fires of anger. I want to light the fire of the Holy Spirit.”
And when I’ve had the wisdom to pray this prayer, God has been faithful.
Make Christianity weird again.
If you’re a Christian, you’re called to be different. So be different. One of the great prayers of Christian faith that captures the ways we are called to be different is the Prayer of St. Francis:
Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it’s in dying that we are born to eternal life.
What if we really lived that way? What if millions of Christians all over the world decided that they were really going to live that way? The world wouldn’t know what to do with us. Rather than simply being like everyone else, we’d be pretty weird. So let’s make Christianity weird again.