September 20, 2009 - Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Am I just getting old… or is the language really worse on television and in movies these days? As I shared with you a few weeks ago, as much as I liked Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino,” his character’s constant swearing had me frequently wincing. The aging, crusty codger Walt Kowalski is almost a parody of the violent men Eastwood usually portrays.
The difference in “Gran Torino” is that most, but certainly not all, of Walt’s violence is verbal. He swears at his priest, his barber, his neighbors and always at his enemies. Even as he protects the pristine lawn in front of his house, he litters the lawn of his conversation with racial epithets, obscenities, vulgarities and vicious sarcasm. When he befriends a young Hmong boy, he still persists in calling him “toad” instead of his real name “Thao.” In terms of film-making, you could argue that most of Walt’s violent language is necessary to set up the story of his redemption.
Yet the kind of language portrayed so graphically in “Gran Torino” is full of hurt in real life and frequently does not lead to redemption. In chapter 3 of the epistle of James the writer spends a long section worrying about the damage done to others by the misuse of our tongues. Last week, you heard Mike Fargo speak strongly and well about the dangers of an undisciplined tongue. Now as we begin with the very next verse, verse 13, it seems that James has switched gears. He starts talking about wisdom.
However, as he asks the question, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” James connects wisdom with the virtue of gentleness. He talks about works “done with gentleness born of wisdom.” He almost certainly has in sight gentle speech as well as gentle action.
James wants us to question our wisdom in light of the violence we harbor. While at North Park I noticed that one professor’s office door has a poster with a quotation from my friend Stanley Hauerwas. Stanley says that he is a pacifist just because he knows he is violent. I can confirm that. Many years ago, when we invited him to our church to speak for a Church & Culture Conference, I sat in trepidation through three lectures waiting for the “bomb” to drop from Stanley’s mouth. Finally, in the question session of third lecture, it did. The bomb fell and I looked around the room, glad for once that not too many people from our own congregation were there to hear it.
In many, many ways, Stanley Hauerwas is a wise man. He has much to teach me and to teach Christians. But his speech was not wise in the way James asks for here. In language he was not gentle, but violent. But that’s true, I think, of many of us. It’s true of me.
Once in our Confirmation class, a bad word was used. I reprimanded the student, but another asked, “How do we know what’s bad or not?” To my deep regret I replied, “If I use it in a sermon, then it’s O.K.” Because one of my daughters was in the class both my daughters began to apply the rule at home or in the car in reverse. Hearing me make an unguarded remark about another driver they would pipe up and ask me, “Would you say that in a sermon, Daddy?” Ouch.
Ungentle language is not just profanity. Your words can be as pure of profanity as a paragraph from Good Night, Moon, but still in context, manner of expression, and effect be violent and damaging. We are way too often far from gentle with each other. And as every family knows, the closer you are, the easier it is to say words which on the surface are harmless, but which in reality pierce like daggers and twist in the wounds.
We fill our heads with violent stories and images. I do like action films. As I say to my wife when she wants me to watch some historical costume drama or an opera, there’s no movie that a good car chase couldn’t make a little better. An evening with Clint Eastwood—or Bruce Lee or Bruce Willis—might be a pleasant diversion. Yet it’s all subtly dangerous to our Christian way of life. Constant exposure to imaginary violence makes it harder for us to avoid being violent people.
We need to confess our violence. I need to confess my violence. Go back to the beginning of chapter 3 and you find James is particularly concerned about those who are leaders and teachers in the church. Yet he’s talking to us all.
So in verse 14 James says to us, “if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.” The Greek word zelos is often translated “jealousy” or “envy,” but as you can hear in the root itself, it also carries the connotation of “zeal.” Zeal and passion for what you’re about can be good—the word is used that way as well. But I wonder whether all our talk of “passion” for mission and ministry, as good as it can be, does not sometimes slip over into the kind of self-centered ambition James is worried about here.
Our culture teaches us to succeed by passionate ambition. You make it in school or sports or business or politics by putting yourself forward. As Philip Kenneson points out, Christians may reject evolution as biology, but we freely embrace “survival of the fittest” in the social arena. Let the strongest, most aggressive person be president of the class, be captain of the team, be CEO of the company, be the chosen candidate of the party. It’s natural. It’s the way the system works.
In response, James tells us in verse 15 that, “Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.” It’s not at all wise or fitting for Christians to carry our culture’s design for success into the church, even in the name of excellence or mission. The consequences are disastrous. Verse 16 argues that “where there is envy [or “zeal”] and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” And we see that working out in our lives.
Not all our violence is verbal or on the screen. Somewhere between three and four million women in America are battered by their domestic partners every year. We Christians should weep, because a good share of that abuse happens in households where the Bible is read and church is attended. Some of you could probably corroborate that from painful personal experience. We’ve got nothing to boast about and lots to confess.
And as I’ve brought up that ugly topic of violence at home, I want to pause and say that if you are cringing inside as you hear it raised, if you are being hurt in this way, God wants to help you. I want to help you. If you choose to share with me about it, I will keep your secrets and I will do everything I can to help you get free of the fear and the pain. Your church here is God’s sanctuary for you, because God is gentle.
Verse 17 calls us to “the wisdom from above,” which “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” A wisdom of gentleness and peace comes from above, from God.
Scripture shows us God’s gentleness. He tenderly clothes the wretched and naked Adam and Eve after their fall. He doesn’t speak to Elijah in fire or storm, but in a still, small voice. In Hosea 11:3, God pictures Himself as a parent gently teaching His child to walk. And in Isaiah 40:11 we find the precious image of God coming as a Shepherd who gently leads His flock.
God’s gentleness became incarnate in Jesus. Every morning now I pray the song sung by Zechariah at the birth of John the Baptist, which ends with the lovely phrase, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us.” Jesus was that dawn of God’s most tender mercy and gentleness.
As we read from Mark 9 today, Jesus welcomed children in a society that largely ignored them. He was kind to women in a world where they were often treated like property. He had gentle words for wretched sinners. He reserved His harsh words mostly for those who treated others harshly in the name of God. In Luke 9:54, Jesus’ disciples wanted to call fire down from heaven on some Samaritans who rejected Him. He rebuked His own disciples. As a footnote says in most Bibles, many ancient manuscripts of Luke say that He also told them, “You do not know what spirit you are of.”
The Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit of God, is gentle. So gentleness is one of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5. Still and all, Jesus was meek, but not weak. Our Lord displays humility, gentleness and meekness, but He also demonstrates power that can stop a storm, raise the dead and feed a multitude. He is gentle because He does not use His power to force Himself upon us. Arrested, Jesus has Peter put down his sword. He could call down a whole legion of angels to come to the rescue, but gently submits. Jesus’ strength is tempered and controlled by the Holy Spirit of gentleness.
You and I are called to be like Jesus, meek, but not weak. Let our words especially be gentle. In Colossians 4:6, Paul says, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” That is how we are to speak, in gracious, gentle sentences which leave a good taste in the mouth of those who hear us.
The study project I framed for myself on a two-week “mini-sabbatical” centers around what seems a biblical contradiction to all I’ve just said. As we read the Old Testament we often encounter a God who is anything but gentle, as He orders His people forth to war and even to the slaying of women and children. This fact has been taken up and pressed as one of several criticisms of Christianity by the “new atheists,” Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and others.
How shall we answer the charge that the God we worship is, at least in the Old Testament, irreducibly violent, a “moral monster” in the words of one critic? I’ve wrestled with that question for awhile now and I can’t say that I know the answer. But one suggestion is that there is strange paradoxical sort of gentleness in the fact that God worked in and through those ancient people just as they were, in all their battles and wars. He did not simply overturn their culture and beat them into meek little lambs. Instead, He patiently, slowly, gently worked to show them that violence does not work. He let them, even guided them, to try violent means so that they might be ready for something else when He sent them the gentle Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
We see that spirit of readiness for a gentler alternative in our reading from Jeremiah 11 today as we hear a fiery prophet willing to be identified as a “gentle lamb led to the slaughter.” We see it in the lesson the disciples were being taught in our reading from Mark 9 about being servants to each other, and about gently welcoming little children.
My hope is that we will also see the lesson of gentleness being learned in our own lives. I would like to give a wise answer to the critics, yet I need to remember that real wisdom is gentle. I Peter 3:15 says that we should “always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within you,” yet verse 16 continues, “but do it with gentleness and respect.” So I believe that any good answer to the problem of Old Testament violence will have to be coupled with practical demonstrations of Christian gentleness.
My old friend Stu was a college professor in philosophy. He is a brilliant man, a master of languages as well as philosophy. He studied Sanskrit, read Kant in German, and reads the Greek New Testament for his private devotions. His skill with language also made him at one time the master of well-honed cutting remarks.
Stu tells how his writings were once full of biting sarcasm, vicious wit and barbed put-downs of all his academic opponents. You can still hear him in that mode if you find a first edition of his first book. And whenever he read a paper at a philosophy conference it would be filled with brilliant invective, sort of an intellectual Walt Kowalksi. And inevitably, at every conference where Stu read a paper, one certain man would rise to disagree angrily and vehemently with every philosophical proposal he made.
Then came a moment of Christian conviction. Stu’s faith caused him to doubt the wisdom of all those vicious remarks. And in his very next essay he left it all out. No put-downs, no cutting asides. He went to a conference, stood and read the paper. When the time for discussion came, his old opponent just sat there and didn’t say a thing. Afterward, Stu found him and asked about his strange silence. The man’s eyes got moist as he said, “Stuart, I’ve listened to you for years and hated all you’ve said and thought. Today, for the first time, I find myself in complete agreement. There’s nothing to discuss.”
My friend Brent Laytham who also knows Stanley Hauerwas told me while I was in Chicago that Stanley has cleaned up his language a bit. He’s decided he does not want to be remembered as the foul-mouthed theologian. Even in his later years he’s learning to be less violent in his speech as well as in his thoughts and actions.
We can all change. We can all receive the grace of our gentle Lord to be more gentle with each other and with those around us. The results of that kind of gentleness will be a very good thing. We will reap benefits both for ourselves and for those who will find the Gospel much more believable when they hear it offered gently.
Verse 18 says, “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” Many people believe lives of faith are responsible for much of the violence in the world. If we want to change their minds, we will need gentle answers “sown in peace.” We will convince them only if our zeal and passion and strong conviction is paired with gentle words and gentle deeds. It’s a lesson I’m learning late in my own life. Yet I pray for more of the wisdom James describes. By the grace of Jesus Christ and the blessing of the Holy Spirit, may God send down the wisdom of gentleness upon us all.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj