Taming the tongue

This is the sermon I delivered this morning at Putney Methodist Church. We have been studying the book of James in the evenings at Putney this month. The texts were: Matthew 12:33-37 and James 3:1-12

maxresdefault“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.” (James 3:5-7)

These are strong words from the book of James, and they may disquiet us somewhat. We are not really used to anyone talking about ‘fire’, ‘iniquity’ and ‘hell’ these days. Even if we agree the general drift of James’ argument about the potential evil caused by reckless talk, we may think he is over-egging the pudding somewhat. However, James is in good company with this hyperbolic, extreme language. His brother – and we have good reason to believe these words were written by Jesus’ brother, James – often did the same, when he wished to get his message across. We might think of Jesus’ warning about the perils of being tempted by what we see:

“if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.” (Matthew 18:9)

Was Jesus really in favour of people wandering round with one eye just because they had cast an envious eye on their neighbour’s new house? No, I don’t think so, and as always we must hold such verses in tension with those where Jesus speaks of the unconditional love of God. What he did want to us to do, though, is to take his message seriously and to reflect deeply on what it is in our lives that caused us to sin, thereby separating ourselves from God and our neighbour. Like many contemporaries, therefore, he used extreme language to grab his hearers’ attention and to ensure his words were remembered.

In the same way, we can hear his brother James using this kind of extreme language to grab his readers’ attention. He doesn’t just use extreme language to do that, though, he also produces some of the most wonderful mental images in the New Testament. Metaphors that immediately conjure up pictures in our minds, and again ensure his words are remembered. Think of the three we heard this morning in the third chapter of James:

“If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies.” (James 3:3)

“Or 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.” (James 3:4)

“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” (James 3:5-6)

62c63bf4f6191ae369c3a806da71b48cAll of these were meant not only to drive the force of James’ point home but to ensure it was remembered too: the terrible damage that can be caused by the tongue.

In using these images and strong language about the tongue in particular, James was very much following a strong tradition from the Old Testament. As we have studied James this month in our evening services, one of the points that has come across repeatedly is how James acts as a bridge between the Old and New Testaments, reminding us of the continuity of God’s message in our holy scriptures. In particular, James follows very closely in the great Wisdom tradition of the Bible. In the book of Sirach, a book that is found in the Apocrypha in Protestant Bibles, we find these words, again conjuring up very clear mental images:

“The blow of a whip raises a welt,
but a blow of the tongue crushes the bones.
Many have fallen by the edge of the sword,
but not as many as have fallen because of the tongue.”
(Sirach 28:17-18)

Or a little later in the same book:

“As you fence in your property with thorns,
so make a door and a bolt for your mouth.
As you lock up your silver and gold,
so make balances and scales for your words.”
(Sirach 28:24-25)

In our call to worship today, we heard words from Psalm 15:

“O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends” (Psalm 15:1-3)

Or from that great repository of God’s wisdom, the book of Proverbs, we again find another fiery image:

“Scoundrels concoct evil,
and their speech is like a scorching fire.” (Proverbs 16:27)

Turning back to the book of Sirach – a book written around 200 years before the birth of Jesus – we find my favourite image:

“When a sieve is shaken, the refuse appears;
so do a person’s faults when he speaks.
The kiln tests the potter’s vessels;
so the test of a person is in his conversation.
Its fruit discloses the cultivation of a tree;
so a person’s speech discloses the cultivation of his mind.
Do not praise anyone before he speaks,
for this is the way people are tested.” (Sirach 27:4-7)

And all of this brings us back to Jesus, and the gospel reading we heard to today, where our Lord echoes Sirach’s metaphor about the tree and its fruit:

“Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. … I tell you, on the day of judgement you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.’” (Matt. 12:33-37)

These concerns about the perils of the tongue and the dangers of ill-considered or hateful speech, therefore, are not something new to James. They run through almost our entire Bible.

Really, that should not surprise us, because James’ message is truly a timeless one. Ever since people have been able to speak, I am sure, they have been able to upset or hurt others by what they have said. We all know from our own lives that the old adage, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” simply does not ring true. We have all been hurt by what people said – and our children here today will sadly know all about this – and we have seen the damage that words have done to people. The same sins about which James, and the other Biblical writers, were so concerned still persist today: gossip, slander, lies, back-biting, name-calling, prejudice. The only difference today seems to be that we have found yet more and more ways of spreading this “restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8): tabloid journalism, Facebook, Twitter and so forth. Sadly, these innovations perfectly illustrate James’ concerns. They possess the power to do great things: to bring people together, to inform, educate and entertain. Yet, as we all know, they also possess the potential to promote lies, hatred and anger. As James observed, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing” (3:10).

9534apocalypse_is_30_seconds_closer_say_doomsday_clock_scientistskkjpgThis week we were forcibly reminded of how a little thing like the tongue can set whole countries ablaze and create a “world of iniquity” (3:6). On Wednesday, Atomic Scientists moved their symbolic ‘Doomsday Clock’ forward by 30 seconds, to two minutes to midnight. This clock is re-set annually and the position of the hands is meant to indicate how grave these scientists perceive the risk to global civilisation to be. In 1953, the hands stood close to midnight after the US and the then USSR detonated their first thermonuclear weapons. In 1991, with the end of the Cold War, it went back to 17 minutes to midnight. This year, worryingly, the hands have returned to two and half minutes to midnight, indicating how dangerous they perceive our current situation to be. They cited a number of reasons for their decision, including the actions of North Korea, the failure to act over climate change and the lack of effective 99752187_mediaitem99752186arms control negotiations. However, they also singled out specifically the tweets and statements of President Trump – something we are all too familiar with but now – as an important factor in their decision. His highly personal attacks on North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, using the childish nickname ‘rocket man’, have threatened “fire and fury” against the nation, and vowed to “totally destroy” Pyongyang, while bragging that his nuclear arsenal was bigger than anyone else’s. If we wanted a better example of “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” (3:5), then I cannot think of one!

btep0dbiaaaxzqYesterday, we had another example of the global impact of the power of the tongue, as we marked Holocaust Memorial Day. This is the day we recall all the genocides of the Twentieth Century. That is not only the Holocaust, or Shoah, that involved the death of six million Jews, and thousands of communists, homosexuals, Roma, trades unionists, and others. It also urges us to remember the tragedies in Armenia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Genocidal acts where millions of people were killed, solely because of their ethnicity or identity. Crimes against humanity whose scale and brutality we can scarcely begin to understand. Crimes which we, as a global community, daily stand the risk of repeating, as the situation of the Rohingya in Burma demonstrates.

the_ten_stages_of_genocide_poster.pdf copyThere is a real temptation to regard all of these events as things too big and too distant for us to contemplate or understand. Yet, the words of James ring true in reminding us that evil of this kind begins with our tongues. That such a small instrument as our tongue is capable of shaping the events and history even of a whole planet. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust has produced a most useful illustration of how genocides happen: ‘The Ten Stages of Genocide’. As it goes on, it involves increasing levels of sophistication and organisation: the arming of militias, the setting up of death camps, etc. But note where it begins: it starts with ‘Classification’ – “The differences between people are not respected. There’s a division of ‘us’ and ‘them’, which can be carried out using stereotypes, or excluding people who are perceived to be different.” As we have been so often reminded, genocide and mass slaughter never begin with gigantic military parades or concentration camps. They begin with the sin of a single human heart. They begin with the lies of a single tongue – a tongue that “sets on fire the cycle of nature” (3:6) and turns good people into crazed maniacs, willing to kill, maim and destroy people who only a few days ago were their neighbours. Again, we are reminded of the prescient words of James, who makes it clear that we can never say we love God with our heart, while we hate our neighbour with our tongue: “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” (3:9)

Now more than ever, brothers and sisters, we need to heed this ancient text of James, for its message is all too modern and contemporary. I hope you would now agree that the force of his language is truly justified, given the deadly consequences of ignoring his words. The words of a man who had seen his own brother hailed by the crowd on Palm Sunday with shouts of ‘Hosanna’, only to witness his unwarranted condemnation a few days later by the same tongues crying, “Crucify!’.

All of us must recognise that we way we speak about one and another reflects who we truly are. If we claim to follow Christ with our hearts, then we have to demonstrate it with our tongues. If, as James reminds us, we have been given tongues capable of both blessing and cursing, then let us bless one another. Let us use our tongues to build one another up, not knock each other down. Let us use them to encourage and offer words of consolation and hope to one another, not backbite or complain. Let us think before we speak and recall the terrible examples from human history, where lies – like a forest fire – have leapt too easily from tongue to tongue, and nearly devoured the world. Let us recall our high calling as disciples of Christ to reject all prejudice, all name calling and discrimination. Let us listen with humility to James’ words, and use our tongues solely to the glory of God and to the service of all his people. Amen.

One Church, or many?

This is the sermon I delivered today at Holy Trinity Roehampton Anglican Church at the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Holy Trinity and Minstead Gardens Methodist Church have worked successfully together for many years as part of an ecumincal parish, committed to serving Christ together in their area. The set gospel reading for today was Mark 1:14-20.

Calling the first disciples - DuccioAs Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And Simon said unto Jesus, “But how shall we follow you, O Lord? As Baptists, as Anglicans, as Catholics or in some other way?” And Jesus said unto them, “No, I just want you to follow me.” And the multitude with Simon did laugh and mocked Jesus, and Andrew questioned the Lord, saying, “Surely you do not expect us to make a lifelong commitment of this kind without some clear creedal statement about the nature of your being, the purpose of your atonement and the role of holy communion.” Peter marvelled greatly, saying, “You have not even told us whether or not we should have women bishops.” And Jesus did leave them, despairing, saying unto himself, “Verily, I think I shall join the Quakers in Nazareth.”

Now, fortunately, I am not allowed to re-edit the scriptures and I can confirm that the gospel of Mark does not contain those last few sentences! We are, though, entering the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, when all Christians are challenged to consider what it means for them to follow Jesus within their own tradition. Our set reading today, from Mark’s gospel, gives us the additional challenge of reflecting upon the relationship between ecumenism – the principle or aim of promoting unity among the world’s Christian churches – and mission. When Jesus called Peter and Andrew to follow him, was he calling them to follow him as Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans or something else? And today, when churches speak of evangelism, or making followers of Christ, are they actually talking about making people members of a particular club or tribe, with their own particular set of traditions?

wo-au601_pope_j_20141130164102Here, in the wonderfully ecumenical parish of Roehampton, with its excellent relations between Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Methodists, we may not think that this is much of an issue. However, it has been a major headache for the Church for thousands of years. In the earliest centuries of the Christian era, bishops in the Roman Empire were horrified to discover that the barbarians at their borders were Christians but the wrong sort of Christians! They had been evangelised by followers of the heretical teachings of Arius, rather than the orthodoxy of Rome and Constantinople, and threatened to engulf the whole empire with their false doctrines. In the years after the Reformation, bloody battles were fought between Catholic and Protestant missionaries seeking to ensure that those who wished to follow Jesus, followed him in the right way. And in the era of European and American missionary activity in Africa and Asia, right-thinking Christians were horrified at the mass confusion of many would-be followers of Jesus caused by the bewildering prospect of Lutheran, Episcopalian, Catholic and other missionaries all presenting their own version of the truth. The only place where such confusion was avoided, it seems, was in the South Pacific, where, in a rare example of common sense, the churches agreed to work on different islands. This has resulted in Tonga being the only country in the world where Wesleyan Methodism is the state religion!

The challenge of the fractured nature of Christ’s body – the Church – and the call to mission remains for us today. We all know well that one of the frequent responses to any attempt at sharing our faith can be something along the lines of, “Well, why should I believe what you believe, if even you Christians can’t agree among yourselves?”. Our response might be that such differences don’t really matter anymore; certainly they seem to matter far less than they did even a few generations ago. But if that is really the case, then are we really happy to pull all our buildings down and come together in one giant sports hall and sing the same songs, and worship in the same way as our Catholic, Baptist, Orthodox and Pentecostal brothers and sisters? (To name but four of the innumerable denominations of Christianity.)

Whenever I hear Christians say that divisions in the church don’t matter anymore and we’re all ecumenical now, I am immediately reminded of a friend of mine at college. He was a member of an independent evangelical church and was very critical of my out-dated loyalty to Methodism. “We’re a non-denominational church,” he proudly boasted. “Really?” I asked. “So, you’re happy for women to act as pastors and have oversight of men?” “Oh no,” he said. “And you believe that the bread and wine of communion becomes the actual, physical body and blood of Jesus Christ?” “Er, no.” “And you believe in the efficacy of infant baptism?” “Definitely not!” “Bad news,” I said. “You’re a denomination.”

wpcu-2016-logo-large-300x259All Christians need honestly to recognise that, even with the greatest enthusiasm and openness on our part, we are members of a divided Church. A Church which has enormous amounts in common but which still has significant differences in matters of theology, practice and worship. The movement for Christian Unity has indeed taken enormous strides in our own time, and we must pray that dialogue and joint working will continue to flourish and grow across the globe. We must acknowledge with humility, though, that Christ’s prayer to God for his disciples, “that they may all be one … so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21) has not been fulfilled, and that our continued division still hampers our efforts to make followers of Jesus.

How can we respond to this challenge? What can we – ordinary, everyday Christians in our tiny part of the global Church Temporal – do about this? There is a temptation to shrug our shoulders and to leave it for others to tackle this seemingly insoluble problem. But we have to remember that Simon and Andrew were just ordinary fishermen who were called to do extraordinary things by the Lord. There are things we can all do.

First, we can mind our language. We are studying the book of James on Sunday evenings this month at Putney, and I think there are few truer comments in scripture than his comments about the use and misuse of the tongue: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” (James 3:5-6) All of us – Methodists, Anglicans and all the rest – can so easily assume an air of ‘effortless superiority’ when talking about the practices and traditions of others. It is also very easy to adopt the language of prejudice when speaking about others. “Typical Catholic!” we might casually say. When actually what we mean is that one particular person or group has annoyed or irked us in some way, or simply that we – often out of habit –do things differently. Our world is in desperate need of good examples of how to disagree, while respecting, and even loving, those with whom we disagree. Let us show potential followers of Christ that we can differ on matters of practice and tradition but that we can still speak about one another with respect and genuine love.

unity-logoSecond, if we are going to be members of a divided Church let us rejoice in our differences, and offer them to the world as a blessing. In some ways, we might argue that the diversity in Christianity reflects the diversity of God – a God who is a god that reveals himself in the wonders of liturgy and clouds of incense, as much as he does in the hymns of Charles Wesley or a good 40-minute sermon. I recall one older lady asking me earnestly during one Week of Prayer, “Do we really all have to be one? Because I don’t think I’ve got the knees to be a Catholic.”! With humility, we need to confess openly that none of our traditions have a monopoly on God’s truth. When I come here to lead worship at Holy Trinity, I am always challenged to reflect on whether we have lost a true sense of awe and wonder in worship in the Methodist tradition, and a proper respect for the sacrament of holy communion. All of our traditions have benefitted from the wisdom of, and been changed by, the others, and still have much to learn. When we encounter those who thirst and hunger for Christ, we must never fall into the temptation of effectively saying, “It’s my way or the highway! This church here is the only path to knowing Christ.” We must also avoid the temptation to imitate the rival companies of the marketplace, demanding absolute customer loyalty. If a potential follower of Jesus comes to our tradition and finds it is not the one for them, then we must help and encourage them to find the right path, not regard it as a failure on our part or a betrayal by them.

Finally, let us recognise that ultimately it is the example of our own faith lived out in practice that will encourage or discourage people to follow Jesus. For so many folk I encounter, the ‘brands’ of Christianity mean very little. I am regularly called Vicar, Father or Reverend, and certainly very few people have an idea what on earth Methodism is. If we enquired closely, many would struggle to say what exactly divides Roman Catholics from Anglicans or Baptists – let alone all the others. For so many of them, a good church is a good church. It is a church where they are made to feel genuinely welcomed and part of a fellowship – and that doesn’t mean just a quick chat over a cup of tea after the service, but true hospitality. It is a church where they see the words of Jesus Christ making a real impact on the lives of those who attend, and in turn encourages them to change the world. It is a church where they can genuinely encounter Jesus Christ – through worship, prayer, the scriptures, and through their neighbours in the pews – and have their deepest questions about life, death and everything in between discussed honestly. Just as with Jesus and those first disciples on the Sea of Galilee, all the theology, all the centuries of tradition, all the pride in our denominations mean nothing, if our lives do not attract those whom we encounter in our everyday lives.

In this Week of Prayer, therefore, let us set aside all that we believe divides us. Let us leave behind the language of prejudice and self-righteousness. And let us re-commit ourselves to serving that same Lord, who walked along the beach in Galilee so long ago. The same Christ who calls us, and all humanity, to follow him and to experience for ourselves the true depth and breadth of his divine love for each one of us. Amen.


“The covenant we this moment make
 be ever kept in mind”

This is the sermon I gave at all three of my churches this year (Barnes, Putney and Roehampton) as part of our annual Methodist Covenant service. The texts were: Genesis 12:1-8; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Mark 14:22-25.

union-handshake-art-bf475c83f072bd2aThe concept of ‘covenant’ runs through our Bible like ‘Blackpool’ through a stick of rock. This morning we have heard just three examples of the term’s use in our scriptures. From Genesis, we heard about God’s first covenant with Abram (or Abraham) and his descendants. From Jeremiah, we heard how God promised the people, who were experiencing such hardship and suffering during the Babylonian siege, that there would be a new covenant, one written on their hearts (31:33). And from Mark’s gospel, we heard the realisation of that promise: the new covenant made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, once for us all.

There are, however, many more examples to be found in the pages of scripture. God’s covenant with Noah, for example, sealed by the sign of the rainbow; the covenant with David; and of course, most importantly, the covenant made on Mount Sinai with Moses and the people of the Exodus. And this is not to mention those covenants made between individuals that we often read about in the Old Testament especially, such as that between Ruth and her future husband Boaz (Ruth 3:11-13). Indeed, the very concept of covenant is the organising principle of the Christian Bible. We essentially divide our scriptures up by relating them to the old covenant made at Sinai – the Old Testament – and the new one made in Jesus Christ – the New Testament.

joseph_anton_koch_006John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and a great Biblical scholar, knew all this very well. Inspired by the Puritans, he encouraged Methodist members from the earliest days to make this language and concept of covenant their own. To engage in a regular re-examination and renewal of their covenant relationship with God. To ask themselves what the state of their relationship with Jesus Christ actually was, and crucially what that relationship was calling them to do in their own life and in the life of God’s Church and world. I am so often asked what is distinctive about Methodism, and this service highlights so much of our core DNA, if we have ears to listen:

  • the desire to enter into a personal relationship with Christ;
  • the call regularly to re-examine the state of that relationship, and recognise that it will mature and develop over time;
  • the absolute imperative that that relationship should change us and the world for the better, as we seek to serve God and our neighbour as ourselves.

I could wax lyrical about this proud heritage, the beauty of the liturgy and the vital importance of the language of covenant in the Bible for some time. However, an abiding challenge would still remain: the fact that the language of covenant seemingly has no place in our world today. Like so many of the words and phrases we use in church life – ‘redemption’, ‘intercession’ or even ‘communion’, for instance – it has little or no relevance to those outside our doors. Think of how many times you have heard the word used in everyday speech. A quick search on the BBC website reveals a few references to the ‘military covenant’ and the recent film starring Michael Fassbender, Alien: Covenant, and that is about it. Even good Methodists I encounter often struggle to define what this service is all about.

If I used the term ‘contract’ or ‘agreement’, then we would perhaps be in a much easier place. All of us enter into those on a regular basis: phone contracts, loan agreements, repayment plans. Many people will be signing up for new gym contracts as we speak, or entering into agreements with Weight Watchers and other similar groups, as the New Year’s resolutions begin to bite and we resolve to fight the flab and get fit. Others will be busy cancelling agreements, trying to cut their expenditure after the expense of Christmas, or getting a better deal elsewhere. (I did precisely that the other day, when I cancelled my Amazon Prime contract the other day after the free trial period had come to an end and I had received all my Christmas packages free from delivery charges!)

We know all about these kinds of contracts. Ones made to suit us and our needs, where we feel no real loyalty to the other party involved – be it a bank, mobile phone company or gym – and they seem to demonstrate little loyalty to us. Agreements that are all about getting as much as we can, while giving as little as possible. Purely transactional relationships, which can be dispensed with whenever we like.

CovenantThat is not what ‘covenant’ means, though. Within the scriptural covenants there are certainly elements of transaction and reciprocity. But when God, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, says, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” (Jer. 31:33) that is an absolute commitment made by God. God is not saying, “You will be my people, until I find some better people, who are less stiff-necked and nicer than you”. Or, “You will be my people, until the cooling-off period expires and the monthly payments increase.” God is saying very clearly that he is entering into a relationship with his creation for all eternity. God is not saying that relationship will always be easy or that we will always get what we want from it – or at least what we think we want – but it is relationship that will always be there. A hand always out-stretched; an ear always ready to listen; the ever-present offer of a true covenant relationship.

As I have said, this concept of a covenant relationship is arguably so hard for us to understand because it seems to exist so rarely outside the pages of scripture. As we look around us, where do we find other examples? Marriages, where one or other partner feels able to walk out when they are not getting exactly what they want from the relationship. Friendships built on gain and advantage, which can be ended at the click of a mouse on Facebook. Employment contracts that discard people when they are sick or in need, and no longer useful. Politicians who seem to believe they have a divine right to rule and no responsibility to those who elected them. And sadly, too often, churches that seem to be built on the concept of, ‘What do I get out of this? How does this all meet my needs?”

As we renew, or even enter for the first time into, our covenant relationship with God today, I urge you to recall Christ’s warning that we need to be in this world but not of this world. We cannot bring the world’s concepts of covenant to this holy place. Instead, we need to take our concept to the world. We need – as always – to model ourselves on Jesus, and particularly his relationship with God. A relationship not built on what he could get out of it, or on what was in it for him. A relationship that didn’t just last when the sun was shining and all was going well. But a relationship built on absolute faith and commitment, through the good times and the bad. A relationship – a covenant – built on flesh and blood, on sacrifice and divine love. A relationship that calls each one of us to be the very best that we can be; to serve God wherever we are; and to love even the unlovely as we love ourselves.

This is not an easy call. Many Methodist deliberately avoid this service because of the challenge those words we will say together shortly place upon them: “I am no longer my own but yours”. But as we make our pledges today, sisters and brothers, let us do so not in our own strength but in that of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. Let us reach out with open hearts and open minds and say to our Maker, “Yes, I want to be in a relationship with you. I know I have done much in my life of which I am ashamed. I know that I shall let you down and myself down in the coming weeks and months, time and again. I know that I will resist your call on my life in so many ways. But I want to know you, Lord, and in turn to be known. I want to be part of your wonderful plans for the Kingdom you are building soul by soul. I want to live my life knowing that it has purpose and meaning and use, because of you and what you have done in Jesus.” Let us take up our covenant again and show the world the desire of its Creator to live in relationship with each one of us – today for all eternity. Amen.