Monday, September 14, 2015

Words Will Never Hurt Me?

The scriptures referred to are James 3:1-12 and Mark 8:27-38.

When I took my Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training in July it seems like the hardest part of the exercises was getting us to ask a person if they were thinking of committing suicide. You could ask if they were thinking of killing themselves. But not if they were going to hurt or harm themselves. That didn't tell you enough. This was after all a first aid course and the purpose was to gauge the severity of the situation. Just as doctors or ER nurses look to see if someone is bleeding, blue, breathless, has broken limbs, brain injuries, or chest pain in order to triage him or her properly, we need to determine how serious the person's despair is so we know how to proceed. That depends on the answer to that difficult question and whether the person has a plan and the means to carry out that plan. Basically all we had to work with to save these folks were words.

I'm glad I took the training. As clergy, I have talked to people who were contemplating suicide, both inside and outside the jail. And the scary truth is that Monroe County has the highest suicide rate in the state of Florida. It's not merely because we have a small population so that our small numbers are disproportionate compared to larger counties. We are significantly higher than other small rural counties. So it's incumbent on us all to learn more about suicide and what to say and do to help others.

Today's New Testament and Gospel readings are all about what we say and the consequences. James starts off by reminding those who teach in the church of the responsibility they hold. Apparently even then teachers were apt to pass off their personal opinions as God's teachings. James is warning them about that. He is also aware that sometimes people make honest errors. We should always make sure that what we state the Bible says is actually what it does say. I recently corrected a Mental Floss article that rightly pointed out that the Bible doesn't say that money is the root of all evil. But it only corrected it to say “the love of money is the root of all evil.” In fact the best translation is “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.” The editor should have checked that. Still I believe it was an honest mistake. Just as a small thing like a bridle guides a horse or a rudder steers a ship, a small but crucial error can lead people astray. Think before you speak.

A spark can set a forest ablaze. In the same way, an intemperate word, a bit of gossip or insinuation, can cause and spread a lot of harm. And no one should fool himself into thinking he has tamed his tongue. We see again and again in public life where an offhand comment or ill-conceived tweet can destroy a career. The speaker can blame the media for magnifying it but they were the ones who engaged their tongues rather than their brains.

James singles out the hypocrisy of those who praise God and then denigrate those created in his image. You wouldn't do that to a friend. You wouldn't say, “I love you but I'd like to shove your kid into traffic.” You understand that doing such a thing would not be a loving thing to do. Yet so-called Christians can and do say horrific things to those who don't believe and even to Christians who believe differently. I have never understood why people who offend Christians receive death threats or worse. That is not loving our enemy. That is not blessing those who curse you. That is not Christian.

Christians should not call people names. They should not wish terrible fates upon others. Even if provoked we are to follow Proverbs 15:1, “A gentle response turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up wrath.” We are to be peacemakers. Unfortunately, that is not the impression the world gets from the news or social media about people loudly proclaiming themselves as Christians. Even in the shouting match that passes for public discourse today, we come across as shrill and unreasonable, rather than as being kind and able to listen and willing to work on solutions.

Part of this is a tendency of some Christians to be closed to new information or new ways of seeing things. We think that because we deal with timeless truths that their expression cannot change, that the Spirit cannot reveal the same truth in a different way. Or we think that what we have learned of the faith is not only true but exhaustive. But it is obvious that the Bible does not tell us everything there is to know about God. How could it? God is infinite and no book can contain all possible knowledge about God. Nor is that necessary. You don't need to know absolutely everything about every part of a car in order to drive one. You need to know the basics and the most common situations you are likely to encounter. For everything else you go to a mechanic. In the same way, the Bible tells us enough about God to start and maintain our relationship with him. It covers the vast majority of situations we will find ourselves in while following him: opposition, times of test and temptation, betrayal, our failures, our need for forgiveness and to forgive others, the need to trust, to hope, to persevere, to give thanks, to rest, to give, etc. For situations truly unique, we need to go to God and then listen to him.

In our Gospel we have reached the turning point of Jesus' ministry. The disciples have seen him heal all manner of people from lepers to the lame, from the mentally ill to chronically ill, from the deaf to the blind. They have seen him raise the dead. They have seen him feed thousands with almost nothing. They have seen him calm storms and walk on water. They have seen him answer all kinds of religious questions with keen insight and shut up his critics. Now Jesus asks who the people think he is and, more crucially, who the disciples think he is. Peter speaks for them all: “You are the Messiah.”

So far, so good. Jesus has been trying to get them to see that, despite the usual expectations of what that title means. He is not the holy warrior most people want; he is the healer and teacher they need. But that's not all they need nor all that he is.

I imagine Jesus taking a deep breath before launching into the next phase of their training. He tells them that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” That went over like a lead balloon. Nobody wants to hear that the man they've backed is going to be rejected by the other leaders of the people and get killed to boot. I don't even think they heard the part about him rising again. I think they were so stunned by the first part. It just made no sense.

Peter was never reticent to say what was on his mind. He takes Jesus aside and starts to correct him. And in the heat of the moment, he doesn't realize the absurdity of what he is doing. He just told the man that he was anointed by God. But apparently Peter doesn't think this means that Jesus knows what God anointed him to do. Peter thinks he, not the Messiah, knows what God's will is.

Now we have all worked for people who have made bad decisions. Sometimes we could see that they were wrong from the very beginning. We may even have been brave enough to tell the boss about our misgivings. But the people that lead us are not generally appointed by God. They were hired or elected or promoted by other human beings. And we know that whatever their gifts of intelligence or skill or charisma or problem-solving, they were fallible as well. Nobody bats .1000. Nobody gets everything right. Heck, even Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes make a mistake ever so often. Because he was after all a human being, albeit a fictional one.

But that doesn't really apply here. God has sent Jesus with a mission. Given Jesus' consistent demonstrations that God is working in and through him, you would think that Peter would simply assume that Jesus knows what God sent him to do. And given the surprising things Jesus does and says you would think that Peter would have learned to go along with whatever Jesus said. If he said, “I'm going to feed thousands with a couple of fish and five loaves,” he was. If he said, “Water and wind, calm down,” they would. If he said, “This girl is not actually dead,” she wasn't—or soon wouldn't be. Why did Peter think that Jesus was wrong about something as vital as his death?

It's been my experience that whenever you hear about someone doing something real dumb and you ask yourself, “What were they thinking?” the answer is usually “They weren't.” And I don't think any of the reasons I just enumerated about why the twelve should trust Jesus on this matter went through Peter's mind. He just reacted emotionally and blurted out the first thing that occurred to him. As we all have.

The problem is that the other disciples are overhearing this. Jesus can't have them questioning this. This part of his ministry is crucial. So he says something that stopped Peter and all such talk cold. “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Why did Jesus call Peter Satan? The word literally means “adversary” and at this point Peter is opposing Jesus' mission. His death on the cross is not optional and it's not up for a vote. The next month or so is going to be extremely hard and Jesus can't have the twelve second-guessing him the whole time. They need to trust and follow him from this point on more than they ever have before.

Peter is looking at the situation from the human standpoint. Fear for Jesus may have had something to do with it but more importantly, Peter is falling into the very human tendency to see everything as a win or a loss and all people as either winners or losers. Getting killed will not make Jesus a winner—or for that matter, his followers. Nobody wants to be on the losing side. Nobody wants their leader to lose. That's very human.

But there is a deeper way to look at things. Is it winning if you give up what is essential merely to survive? Dr. Semmelweis could have saved himself a lot of grief had he relinquished on the whole handwashing thing in the face of the overwhelming opposition he got from the medical establishment more than a century ago. Yes, more new mothers would have died but he would have saved his career and perhaps even his own life. Lincoln could have similarly saved himself much sorrow and probably his life as well had he just let people keep other people as slaves, as humans had done for millennia. Ditto for Martin Luther King Jr. if he had just let the establishment continue to treat his people as second class citizens. But in each case they thought their cause was more important than living a long and quiet life.

Jesus calls the crowd over to join his disciples as he lays out the requirements for taking his path. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

First off, Jesus is not doing recruitment properly by this world's standards. Seriously, would you answer a want ad that said you must divest yourself of all you desire and act in a manner that will get you executed by the authorities? No, you want to hear about all the benefits of seeking a position with someone. You want big money, admiration by the world, a life of comfort and privilege. Jesus makes following him sound less attractive than joining the marines. At least they get to kill people. Jesus says following him will probably get you killed. What kind of incentive is that?

None if you consider this life the only one. If the blandishments of this life are what matters to you, you need another religion. This is why those those who preach prosperity are so popular. They act like God is your personal genie, granting you wealth and power and a good earthly life if you just invest some of your money in him—by which they mean, in them. Apparently their Bibles are missing that verse about camels and needles.
Nowhere in scripture are we told we are getting to heaven via the gravy train. Quite the contrary, when you stand up for truth, you are going to run into opposition. You are going to have to make sacrifices. You are going to have to decide if your integrity is more important than your cushy life.

Notice though that Jesus says it is for the sake of the gospel, the good news of God's love and forgiveness and restoration through Christ, that we are to give up our comfortable life. He is not talking about every possible religious issue but the essential one. Jesus did not let the hot button issues of his day—taxes, the authority of the government over certain aspects of our lives, questions of rituals and other religious side issues—distract him from his proclamation of the gospel. Jesus controlled his tongue, staying on message, despite persistent demands that he state his position on every controversy that was then in vogue. As CS. Lewis said, whatever is up to date is eternally out of date.

There is a temptation to state THE Christian position on whatever the topic of the day is. In some matters it is clear: we are not to steal; we are not to lie; we are not to murder; we are not to betray our spouses; we are not to rob or defraud people; we are not to pervert justice by showing partiality; we are not to spread slander; we are not to hate or take revenge or bear a grudge but we are to love our neighbor as ourselves and we are to worship God alone. (Exodus 20:1-17; Leviticus 19:11-18) And we each have to work out how to apply these moral principles to contemporary issues. But moral dilemmas arise when two or more of these principles clash--such as in defending others, where Jesus' command not to resist evil comes up against the principle of not allowing harm to come to another. (Lev 19:16) But each Christian may give the conflicting values different weight and so come to different conclusions. Some feel that we need only turn the other cheek when malice is directed toward us but we can use force to protect others. Quakers, the Amish and Mennonites reject all use of violence. They may interpose themselves but they will not fight. And so we should remember the words of 17th century Lutheran theologian Rupertus Meldenius that Christians should observe “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

While today's Christians do not usually come to blows over their disagreements, we too often use hateful words towards those with whom we disagree. And as James says, that is, in and of itself, sinful. The ends do not justify the means, even if those means are simply words. Rather we need to always remember that we represent Jesus in all that we say as well as what we do. In a way, we are like those who work the suicide hotlines, saving people from themselves, often using only words of empathy and hope.

James points out the contradiction of using our tongues both to bless God and to curse those whom he made in his image. We need to prayerfully grow into the fullness of Christ so that we everything we say is a blessing to others. The world doesn't need more people pointing out what is wrong with other people. We need more people pointing to the good news that God can change us into more faithful, more hopeful, more loving people in Christ.

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