The most dangerous job
Last Sunday I sat here trying very hard to listen to the choir as they sang before the message. But most of the time all I could hear was the sound of my heart. I was getting ready to speak about one of those grey areas that can get any pastor into real trouble. When you talk about something that is emotionally charged, you begin to play with fire and you can easily burn yourself. For one there is the feat that people may think that I was saying that anger is bad and that as a Christian you should never be angry. But that is not biblical; when we read the gospel we see the many times that Jesus became angry. Anger is an emotion it is neither good nor bad.
This past Friday was September 11, and the nation remembered. How can you not be angry at how someone can give up his own life in order to kill people they never met; it is only natural to be angry, the issue is what to do with that anger. The apostle Paul reminded the Ephesians the words found in Psalm 4 verse 4: “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,” (Ephesians 4:26). The apostle James writes: “People’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” (James 1:20) So it is all about handling your anger.
But fear of being misunderstood was not what was making me as nervous as I was last Sunday. The fear comes, not so much from the act of speaking, as from the act of preaching. Who am I to stand before you and speak on behalf of God? Who am I to say to any of you: thus says the Lord? Matthew tells us about a warning that Jesus gave to people in general: “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him or her to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6) The bible tells us that God love you so much that God sent God’s only son to die in your place; each of you are precious in God’s eyes. You are extremely valuable to God.
Last Sunday I shared that I wanted God to judge me with as much grace as God can bestow on anyone. This week the lectionary text is about James 3:1-12, the reading begins with the words: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Excuse me? James says that “we” including himself, who teach. Why would anyone expose themselves to be judge with greater strictness by a holy God? Add to that the words of the book of Hebrews: “For we know the one who said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:30-31)
The apostle Paul clearly states why some of us teach even thought we are exposing ourselves to stricter judgment. Paul states: “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16) So if I am compelled to preach, then why not speak every Sunday about God’s love for you? Why not stay away from any controversial subject? The answer is found in the book of the prophet Ezekiel. “Son of man, I’ve made you a watchman for the family of Israel. Whenever you hear me say something, warn them for me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You are going to die,’ and you don’t sound the alarm warning them that it’s a matter of life or death, they will die and it will be your fault. I’ll hold you responsible. But if you warn the wicked and they keep right on sinning anyway, they’ll most certainly die for their sin, but you won’t die. You’ll have saved your life. (Ezekiel 3:17-19)
If you take Ezekiel, Corinthians and James seriously, it does not matter how many years you have been preaching; you approach every sermon as a sacred trust and an awesome responsibility. You are always conscious that you are speaking and teaching to the most important people in the universe; the children of God, but that does not seem to impress other preachers. CNN reported on Steven L. Anderson, the pastor of Faithful Word Baptist Church in Arizona. His sermon for Sunday August 16 was entitled: Why I hate Barack Obama. He spent the first few minutes of his message making sure people understood that he did not meant that he hated Obama’s positions nor Obama’s policies and not even what Obama was doing; he wanted everyone to understand that he hated Obama, the man. This sermon was preached on the day before the president arrived in Arizona.
The following day one of his church members went to see president Obama while carrying an M16 rifle in plain view. During his now famous sermon, Pastor Anderson told his congregation that he was going to pray to God that Obama dies and go to hell. As part of this sermon pastor Anderson quoted Paul’s words to the Galatians: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” (Galatians 6:7)
I do not want to judge Pastor Anderson, but I have some questions about what he said. I cannot believe that he is preaching and not listening to his own sermon. He is sowing hate, what does he think he is going to reap? Words like those inspired those who in 9-11 killed thousands of people whom they never even met. How can he not see that? Eight years have passed, and every year we are called to reflect on the events of that day; how long would it take before he gets it?
Have pastor Anderson ever read the epistle of James? “For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 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.” I have more of a problem with people who hear this and do not react to it. I believe that it is your responsibility to listen to what I say and compare it with the bible. It is in your best interest to follow Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians: “Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22) John Wesley the founder of Methodism believed that to renounce reason is to renounce religion. He believed that to religion and reason ho hand in hand, and that all irrational religion is false religion.
The words, sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me, are familiar to most of us; but James does not agree with them. Words are powerful, and there is a responsibility to speak carefully. James speaks about how careful we need to be in using speech. He uses examples in daily life to show how something small can master something big: how we control horses and ships, he then compares that to the power of speech. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And 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.”
Words will change what you believe, and what you believe will determine what you do, and what you do will transform who you are. The apostle Paul said it this way: “The mind of sinful person is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” (Romans 8:6-7) So what is the answer? “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)
Some have attempted to do this by a life devoted to silence, but we have a call a responsibility to speak to others about God’s eternal plan. So for James controlling what you say, mastering your tongue is the most important thing you can do for your spirituality. “For 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.” “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,” (James 1:19)