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This Is How We Do It

September 16, 2018


September 16, 2018 (Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost)

New Millennium Lakeshore Church

Little Rock, Arkansas

James 3:1-12

3Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters,*for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.2For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature,* and is itself set on fire by hell.* 7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters,* this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters,* yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.



Mark 8:27-38

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’28And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ 29He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’* 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,*will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words* in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’


Through suffering and rejection, O God,
you bring forth our salvation,
for in Jesus you embrace our humanity
and transform our lives by the glory of his cross.
Grant that for the sake of the gospel
we may rebuke the lure of this world,
take up our cross,
and follow your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.



Although the title of this sermon is This Is How We Do It, the title of a popular music dance tune by Montell Jordan, the sermon doesn’t involve how we party.  That is because the passage from James 3 and the periscope from Mark 8 deal with the drama that happens when people are undisciplined with our words. 


In the passage from Mark, we see how Jesus asked his disciples about the words people were using to identify him.  Then he asked the disciples to speak their own words concerning him.  When Peter declared that Jesus was the promised Messiah from God for humanity, Jesus commended Peter’s words.  Yet, when Jesus later told his disciples that his ministry as Messiah would expose him to rejection, hatred, accusations, and even death, Peter turned from commending Jesus to chastising him. At that point, Jesus used words to correct Peter’s misguided notion that obeying God’s call would be a cakewalk for Jesus.


Words make a profound difference.  The author of James addresses this issue in several ways.  Faithful people are cautioned against being quick and easy to name people teachers.  Perhaps James was concerned that undisciplined and unqualified persons might be selected who would lead others into error or dishonor the religion of Jesus.  


James then directly mentions the power of language.  Beginning at verse 3 and continuing thru verse 12, the tongue is a metaphor to show speech can be a force for healing or harm. In The Message, Eugene Peterson addresses this reality in the following words.  


It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire.  A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that.  By our speech, we can ruin the world, turn harmony into chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.   


This is scary.  You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue – its never been done.  The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer.  Withour tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image.  Curses and blessings out of the same mouth! (James 3:3-10, The Message)

The power of words to produce harm was obvious to people long before the time of newspapers and gossip magazines.  It was obvious long before Alexander Graham Bell developed the telephone.  Thousands of years before there was an Internet and the term “cyber bullying” came into use, people understood that words can heal or hurt.  

We have known for a long time that the saying about sticks and stones may break bones but words cannot hurt is not true.  Words may not break bones, but words can incite people to physically attack others.  

In the Declaration of Independence, one of the grievances that Thomas Jefferson named among the reasons for American independence from allegiance to King George and England includes the following chilling charge: He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an indistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.  The rest of U.S. history and genocide toward Native Americans cannot be fully understood without including the impact and intent of those words.

Students of the film industry know that D.W. Griffith’s silent film “The Birth of A Nation” kicked off the modern era of movies when it was released in March of 1915.  Students of social justice know that the film demonized black people by portraying black men as sexual predators and portrayed black women as hyper-sexualized or fit for nothing but domestic servitude.  The Birth of A Nation set the stage for the ongoing Southern opposition to federal power concerning racial justice by the way it portrayed federal Reconstruction era efforts as harming white people in the American South.  White women were portrayed as vulnerable prey.  Meanwhile, the Ku Klux Klan was portrayed as heroic.  President Woodrow Wilson had The Birth of A Nation shown at the White House.  The rise in lynching, the Elaine, Arkansas Massacre of 1919, and KKK terrorism throughout the United States all followed Griffith’s classic movie, The Birth of A Nation, long before anyone began talking about the dangerous potential of social media.


B.J. Gallagher is a sociologist and author of over thirty books, including “If God Is Your Co-Pilot, Switch Seats” (Hampton Roads).  On November 28, 2015, Huffington Post published an essay by Gallagher titled, “Do Words Kill?  Is Political Rhetoric Inciting Christians to Violence.”  Here is what Gallagher wrote in that essay:  

“In the beginning was the Word,” according to the Bible. God’s words created the universe; He spoke us into being. Words created our world - literally. Words have power - to uplift or to tear down - to inspire or to incite - to heal or to hurt - to create or destroy. Words define our reality - for better or for worse.


In the aftermath of the recent shooting at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, it’s time we examine the role of words in our politics and in our society. Those who defensively insist that their vicious verbal attacks on Planned Parenthood have nothing to do with a single gunman’s massacre of innocent citizens are fooling themselves.

We all understand the power of words. Words shape our perception of the world; words trigger emotions; words wound; words have consequences. Those who write books and blogs understand the power of words; those who work in advertising and sales know the power of words; those in the media are savvy about the power of words; and political leaders know all-too-well the power of words.

Words call us to action: to buy things, to vote a certain way, to hate those who are different from us, to eat certain foods and wear specific brands of clothes ... and yes, to kill.

America was established by words - the Declaration of Independence. Our rights and responsibilities are secured by words - the Constitution. Words commemorate significant events in history - the Gettysburg Address. Words capture the hopes and dreams of a people - MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We memorize those words; we recite those words; we refer to those words; we call on those words to define who we are and what we stand for as a nation.

Those who pooh-pooh the lethal power of words are forgetting (or ignoring) the horrific results of deadly orators such as Hitler and Mussolini. History is replete with examples of political leaders who used their words to incite hatred, start wars, and lead their people to commit genocide.

Jesus was not the only spiritual leader who taught us the power of words. Five hundred years before Jesus was born, Buddha cautioned his followers:

“Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words.
Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions.
Be careful of your actions, for your actions become your habits.
Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character.
Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny.”

Buddha wasn’t just talking about politicians and pundits - he was talking about all of us.One of Buddha’s guidelines on the Eight-fold Path is the concept of Right Speech, the first principle of ethical conduct. Buddha pointed out that “words can break or save lives, make enemies or friends, start war or create peace. He explained the elements of right speech: (1) to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully, (2) to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others, (3) to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others, and (4) to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth.”

Is Donald Trump guilty of verbal violence? Are Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson guilty of contributing to a toxic political culture? Is Bill O’Reilly culpable for fanning the flames of hate? Does Rachel Maddow contribute to intolerance and anger with her commentary? Does John Oliver commit violence when he ridicules public figures? Jesus and Buddha would both tell us that looking for someone to blame for the Planned Parenthood massacre will not bring answers - or healing.

The real question we need to ask is: “How do my words contribute to violence in the world? In what ways do I participate in a social and political culture of intolerance, hate, and/or violence?” For as long as we point fingers of blame at one another, we fail to see our own culpability. “And why behold you the mote that is in your brother’s eye, but consider not the beam that is in your own?” the Bible chastises us.

Every time we yell at someone who cuts us off in traffic, we are being verbally violent. Each time we call someone an “idiot” or “moron,” we are guilty of wrong speech. If in exasperation we blurt out, “If you do that I’ll kill you!” to our spouses, our words are an attack. When we lose our tempers and drop the F-bomb on someone who angers us, that F-bomb really is a bomb. It does damage. Idle threats are not idle - they are seeds we plant in our psychic and cultural soil - seeds that take root and later blossom into violent acts. We reap as we sow.

If we want more civil discourse, we must start with ourselves. If we want less violence in our country, we must stop committing violence with our words. Change doesn’t start in Washington - it starts with each and every one of us, where we live and work. Gandhi taught us, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” And the Christian hymn echoes: “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

Gallagher, Jesus, and James were talking about the fact that words have power. Our words have moral agency – meaning the power to heal or harm.  Words are not morally neutral.  They are morally potent.  Our challenge is to use the moral power of our speech in ways that liberate, uplift, correct, encourage, heal, and inspire hope.  Amen.


©Wendell Griffen, 2018