"A Tongue Full of Burning Feathers," Sermon / Pr. Ted Giese / James 3:1–12 / Sunday September 16th 2018: Season of Pentecost / Mount Olive Lutheran Church
A Tongue Full of Burning Feathers," Sermon / Pr. Ted Giese / James 3:1–12
Mount Olive Lutheran Church / Pr. Ted A. Giese / Sunday September 16th 2018: Season of Pentecost / James 3:1–12 "A Tongue Full of Burning Feathers"
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 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. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 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. 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! 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. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in Your sight O Lord. Amen.
Grace peace and mercy to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Good Christian Friends. Let me tell you an old folk tale, “A Jewish woman repeated a story about a neighbor, about one of the other women in the community. Within a few days everyone in the community knew the story. The person she talked about heard what had been said about her and she was very sad and hurt. Later, the woman who had spread the story learned that what she had repeated was not true. That what she had said had hurt her neighbour’s reputation. She was very sorry and went to a wise rabbi and asked what she could do to repair the damage. After giving this some thought, the rabbi said to her, “First go home, and wait for a windy day, then get one of your feather pillows, go outside and cut it open and shake the feathers out, then come back and see me again, and bring the empty pillow.” Surprised by the rabbi’s response and a little confused, the woman followed his advice and went home, the next evening the wind came up and she went outside and did as she was told. The Wind grabbed hold of each tiny feather and pulled them away into the evenings growing darkness until she couldn’t see them anymore. She went back inside and went to sleep.
When she returned to the rabbi in the morning, empty pillow case in hand, he asked her, “Did you do as I asked?” She said, “Yes, but I’m not sure why you asked me to do it? And I’m not sure why you wanted me to bring you this empty pillow case?” The rabbi said, “Take the empty pillow case and go into the neighbourhood, I want you to find every one of the feathers and put them back into the pillow case and sew it back up.” “That’s impossible,” said the woman, almost in tears. “The wind took them away into the night and scattered them all over the neighbourhood I know not where. I can’t possibly find them all.” “Yes,” said the rabbi. “And that is what happens when you gossip or tell a story about someone else. Once you talk about someone, the words fly from one person’s mouth to another, just like those feathers flew in the wind. Once you say them, you can never take them back.”
In our Epistle today Saint James is looking at God’s demand for perfection in everything right down to what we say and how we use our tongue. James writes, “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.” This text from James is full of vivid analogies and metaphors about putting your foot in your mouth and or about purposefully saying things that are unkind and which break the eighth commandment, words that don’t put the best construction on things. How does The Eighth Commandment go? “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.” What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbour, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way. Saint James is warning you to be careful with your speech, the things you say. We all need to be as careful with our words as we are with matches, and lighters, and or any fire starting agent or flammable substance.
What did people say years ago: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me,” meaning that words don’t cause physical harm … that is until they do. With unkind, untrue, and hurtful words a person’s life can be burnt to the ground as quick as an arsonist can burn down a house. Maybe there’s no wind the day you say them … but how can you know? The devil likes to make the feathers of your unkind words, which seem light to you, to be the sort of words that will float away into the wind to crush the spirits of others. That is his hope, he is the father of lies and he is keen on propping up lies even after you regret what you have said.
We’ve had a couple funerals this past week, for Mavis Andrews and Leonard McAvenna, and I was at the hospital this morning to be with family grieving around the death bed of Brent Kraigh who had his baptism confirmed years ago at Redeemer Lutheran Church, and when it comes to the deceased you may have heard the old adage and warning, “don’t speak ill of the dead,” in life this is yet another place where kind words are best and it’s good to keep the tongue in check. When people say horrible things at a funeral or in and around the days of a person’s death or funeral it’s often a vain attempt to puff up oneself at the expense of the dead. For example the American Lawyer Clarence Darrow (1857 – 1938) famously said, “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.” Never heard of Clarence Darrow? He was apparently a leading member of the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU, perhaps you’ve heard this other quote before often falsely attributed American humorist and writer Mark Twain (1835 – 1910), “I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” The basic sentiment can be credited not to Mark Twain but to Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar (1816 – 1895) who when asked about the death and funeral of the prominent 19th century abolitionist and speaker Wendell Phillips (1811 – 1884) said he did not attend the funeral but, “I approved of it.” This was then printed in the papers and many people read it and the feathers of his words floated everywhere the news papers where delivered, onto street corners and kitchen tables and armchairs all over Boston; what’s worse Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar ought to have known better than to speak like that of anyone living or dead as he, a Harvard educated lawyer, was, in his professional life, a man who ended up being both a Massachusetts Supreme Court Judge and an Attorney General of the United States. Lawyers use their tongue as their primary tool in their work, and just because they do doesn’t mean that they are immune from the possibility of fouling things up with their words, and we, many of us who are not professional speakers likewise, all need to take heed to what Saint James writes in his epistle, because each of us have a tongue and each of us communicates with it, and we are all tempted to use that tongue, our words to evil ends.
Yes, the temptation to say a thing that causes trouble is great and while we all know from experience how troubling words can be, the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh convince us that they are just words, as insignificant as a little feather. An unknown writer offers this wisdom which could have come right from the epistle of James, which echos the sentiment of the old Jewish folk tale I told you when he says: “An unkind word fall easily from the tongue, but a coach with six horses cannot bring it back.” Which is to say that saying something regrettable is both tempting and easy: and once said it is almost impossible to unsay. Do you have words you wish you could unsay? Words you wish you had kept in the pillow case of your mouth? Were they intentional or were they words misspoken?
Some people aim to be unkind and they succeed, others do so by mistake or ignorance – in James 2:10 we are told; “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Which means all sins are equally bad in the eyes of God, so breaking the eighth commandment of “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour” would be the same as breaking the fifth commandment “You shall not murder;” even if a person lived a perfect life and in their last words they uttered something that broke the eighth commandment they would be condemned to hell and eternal damnation should they died with no repentance and no forgiveness of their sin. That is to say if they were attempting to enter heaven by their own works, and succeeded in all things but failed in one false word, failed in one untruth, in one unfounded and unnecessarily hurtful comment such a thing would damn them as much as murder without remorse or unrepentant idolatry. James writes that a man could bridle his whole body, control his whole body, if he could just control his tongue. Is this perfect person you? Do you have perfect control of your tongue, perfect control of your whole body? Or is this perfect person someone else?
At the time of His arrest, at the time of His betrayal, at the time of His trial, at His flogging, at His crucifixion, Jesus could have said many things which might have changed the course of the events of that day. He was likely tempted to say unnecessary things, even untrue things. Under the greatest pressure Jesus remained exactly what James describes: “a man who did not stumble in what he says,” Jesus was in fact the Perfect Man, and because of this Jesus was able also to bridle His whole body. Isaiah in our Old Testament reading from Isaiah 50: 6-8a Describes Jesus: in the first person we hear these words: Words that show Jesus on His way to the cross.
I turned not backward.
I gave My back to those who strike,
and My cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
I hid not My face
from disgrace and spitting.
But the Lord God helps Me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set My face like a flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame.
He who vindicates Me is near.
I mentioned last words – here are some examples of last words:
“Go on, get out - last words are for fools who haven't said enough,” said to his housekeeper, who urged him to tell her his last words so she could write them down for future generations: Karl Marx, communist revolutionary, d. 1883.
“Damn it . . . Don't you dare ask God to help me,” said to her housekeeper, who had begun to pray aloud: Joan Crawford, actress, who died on May 10th, 1977.
And lastly a more humble and repentant word, “Lord help my poor soul,” said by horror and suspense writer Edgar Allan Poe, who died on October 7th, 1849.
From the cross Jesus had some last words as He hung dying for the sins of the world. Jesus prayed to God the Father for those who were crucifying Him, in Luke 23:34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And at the very last, at the moment of death, in Luke 23:46 we hear what Jesus said and how He said it: Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit!” And having said this He breathed His last. For a world that believes that Jesus was just a man, an extraordinary man, even a good man, for such a person these are Jesus’ very last words. For us who share in the hope of the resurrection of the dead, who share in the joy of Easter, who share in God given faith, who share in the knowledge of the truth we believe and confess that these were not Jesus’ last words ever, they are simply His last words before His death upon the cross. On the day of His resurrection, when He went to be with His disciples in the locked upper room He welcomed them with the words, “Peace be with you” These words were not spoken by a ghost but were said with a tongue of flesh – in the same way we who die with Christ, die in Christ, die in The Faith, will likewise utter more words with our very own tongue. And when we do so, in our resurrected bodies, we will no longer be tempted into saying the wrong thing. Our tongue will be made perfect with the rest of our body and it will no longer be a restless evil, full of deadly poison. It will be an instrument of pure goodness, full of praise for Jesus.
Until that day we struggle to bridle our tongue, for in doing so we bridle our body also. For the better we manage our tongue, or our fingers as we type, or thumbs as we text, the less trouble we will find ourselves in. Yet what can we do when we find ourselves in trouble, what can we do when we have “hit send” and let loose evil full of poison and can’t get it back? To whom can we turn when we realize we are not perfect? We can turn to the Perfect Man, who is also Perfect God – Christ Jesus. In Him we have forgiveness for speaking falsely because when tempted to speak falsely Jesus resisted the temptation; where we fail, He succeeded. With sadness we know only too well that this thing which James writes about the tongue is true: With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. Because of this, when you have something difficult to say, or when you find yourself in a difficult trial or situation, hold your tongue just long enough to pray to the Holy Spirit for the right thing to say, and if nothing comes listen and don’t speak until you know what is best to say; trusting always in Jesus, and when you measure up less than perfect turn for forgiveness to the one who is perfect, the one who humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross; He whose tongue was bridled perfectly and whose body followed suit. Amen.
Let us pray:
Lord have mercy on us, Christ have mercy on us, Lord have mercy on us, “take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, take our hearts and set them on fire; for the sake of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.”
 John 20:19
 Philippians 2:8