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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Proverbs 18
“Bad Words”
August 24, 2014 - Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

         “It’s my property and I can do whatever I want here!” As a newly elected member of our homeowner’s association board of directors, I was hearing horror stories. One owner who has a yard full of trash and junk told her neighbors she could do as she pleased with her home. No one else has a say about it. That sort of self-centered arrogance makes neighborhood relationships “interesting” when other well-meaning people try to create some sort of shared community life.

         Proverbs 18:1 describes that overly independent and selfish woman. “The one who lives alone is self-indulgent, showing contempt for all who have sound judgment.” That’s the opening to this chapter, the first of three verses describing the attitude of what verse 2 calls a “fool.” It’s not about those who simply live by themselves, whether by necessity or choice. It’s about people who smugly isolate themselves from others and live without consideration for those around them.

         Likewise in verse 2, the fool has no interest in what others say, but is engaged in an unbreakable monologue about her own opinions. This is not just a person who talks a lot, but the one who is always right, who never listens but only keeps telling you the answer to every question that is raised. Raise your hand if you have encountered a person like that.

         That foolish, ugly spirit of self-centered selfishness and correctness is the opposite of what Paul counsels Christians to be in Romans 12:3 as we heard this morning, “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.” He goes on to talk about living together as a body, as people not isolated from each other, but connected and sharing with the body the various gifts God has given us.

         Inevitably, if you cut yourself off by ignoring what others say, and snub their good judgment about the effect of your actions on everyone else, you experience the community’s response. So verse 3 tells us, “When wickedness comes, contempt comes also; and with dishonor comes disgrace.” At our HOA board meeting, that woman with the yard full of garbage was disdainfully called “a hoarder.” “She’s sick,” declared someone else. Contempt and disgrace is what comes to the person who speaks and acts like a fool.

         This chapter focuses on the way fools talk. You may notice I’ve titled many of these Proverb sermons using the adjective “Good,” followed by a word I’ve found at the heart of each chapter. This sermon was originally “Good Words.” But I realized I’d already preached “Good Talk” on chapter 12, and that many of the “words” in chapter 18 are not good, but bad. So, carefully differentiating this from last year’s Jason Bateman film, which I haven’t seen, I’d like to say that Proverbs 18 zeroes in on bad words.

         Thus verse 4 says “The words of the mouth are deep waters…” We might think of a person who is “deep” as wise, but Proverbs is picturing a still, stagnant pool where you can’t see the depths, can’t look through the murky water. These are the words of deceptive people, whose talk hides ugly, unseen thoughts and feelings down in their hearts.

         “Deep water” like an ocean or lake was often a symbol of fear and danger in Bible times. Verse 4 is using a metaphor to say what James 3:6-8 says about the tongue, that the words we speak are powerful and dangerous, and can drag us down to disaster. In contrast to the murky, deadly deep water of bad words, the second half offers the gushing stream or “bubbling brook” that is words of wisdom. When we speak truly and compassionately, it’s like a stream of pure clear water that brings refreshment to those around us.

         I can’t really escape saying something about Ferguson, Missouri and the reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown, even though we are already drowning in the deep water of an ocean of words about it all. I’d still like to heed that warning in verse 2 about only expressing personal opinion without understanding. As we see also in verse 13, it is pure folly to speak first without trying to listen and understand what others feel and say.

         When we turn our thoughts to Ferguson, verse 5 jumps out at us, “It is not right to be partial to the guilty, or to subvert the innocent in judgment.” That proverb calls for us to cautiously listen before we form an opinion or respond to reports we hear. From our mostly white perspective some of us will note Michael Brown had committed a petty theft and that he very possibly struck the police officer who shot him. That, we might think, would make him the guilty person.

         Understanding the African-American perspective takes much more listening and discernment. Imagine what it’s like to be a person forced by the color of your skin to live in fear of the police. Many of my African-American pastor friends tell stories of being personally stopped and hassled by police for no good reason. Maybe a black person had recently committed a crime nearby. Maybe they were in a neighborhood where dark skin is seldom seen. But many respectable, law-abiding African-Americans have a story like that. You and I teach our kids that the police are their friends. I just heard an African-American parent on the radio say they have to teach their children to keep their hands in plain sight and say, “Yes sir” and “No sir” when they meet the police.

         If we stop and consider that very different African-American viewpoint, then we might understand better how our black brothers and sisters feel when they hear news that “an unarmed black man was shot six times in the street by police.” Maybe we can grasp the feeling that lies behind the outrage and the protests in Ferguson, and the African-American view that Officer Wilson is the guilty person to whom we must not be partial.

         Maybe a grand jury and a court trial can sort out the facts of the case, but we still must realize that deep and powerful feelings are at work alongside whatever the facts are. It does no good for we as white people to desire more facts, unless we are first ready to ponder the emotional impact for others of the simple fact that a white man shot a black man.

         So let us weigh our words before we speak about Ferguson, or about our own smaller concerns and disputes, keeping in mind the next few verses like 6, “A fool’s lips bring strife…” and 7, “The mouths of fools are their ruin…” and maybe especially the warning about gossip in verse 8, “The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels…” Let’s not just listen to words we want to hear, that taste like candy going down, but to words that challenge and confront us with our own bias and isolation from people who are different.

         Like so often in Proverbs, verse 9 seems to change the subject, talking about being being lazy, as we found weeks ago in chapter 6. But consider the “work” at hand. We want to work to listen well, to understand each other, and to find good words that help rather than hurt. Those who refuse to do the holy work of careful listening and speaking are “kin to a vandal.” Slacking the effort it takes to really understand vandalizes relationships. That lazy spirit in regard to others caused literal vandalism in Ferguson.

         What do we do when we don’t know what to say or even what to pray for the people of Ferguson? Verse 10 points us to the one good Word which is always safe. The beginning is on the front of your bulletin, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower,” followed by “the righteous run into it and are safe.” If we don’t know what to say, then it would be wise to retreat to secure ground, to offer prayer for others in the name of the Lord.

         In our Gospel text from Matthew 16 we find the disciples wondering what to say when Jesus asks who they think He is. Peter has the good answer when he simply names Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Arising out of that clear recognition of our Savior’s identity, Christians for centuries have prayed what is sometimes called the “Jesus Prayer,” “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” When we see our nation and our world torn apart by hatred and violence we could do a lot worse than simply turning that prayer into one for us all, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us sinners.”

         As silly as it sounds, a simple prayer in the name of Jesus is a much safer place to be than within locked doors or behind strong borders. It’s more secure than a healthy bank account. So verse 11 tells us the rich imagine their wealth is a stronghold, like a high wall around them. But verse 12 echoes a warning we heard last week. That sort pride in wealth or power or intelligence only precedes destruction, but humility, humble prayer and calling upon the name of the Lord, will bring both honor and true security.

         Verse 13 brings us back to the work of listening before answering, of seeking understanding of others before trying to advise or judge them. We may answer before we’ve listened because of a person’s color, or because they are homeless, or gay, or female, or old, or young, or uneducated or well-educated. But all those pre-judgments, says this verse, are folly and shame and they will lead to harm and ruined relationships.

         God be praised that those two missionary medical people came home and got cured of ebola. As verse 14 says, “The human spirit will endure sickness.” But who can cure the feeling of hopelessness people develop when they are constantly mistreated, when they have no hope of a good job, when their cities are constantly being bombed, when it seems no one really cares? The verse ends, “but a broken spirit—who can bear?”

         That’s why verse 15 pushes us to acquire understanding, knowledge about the people and situations around us. Don’t just talk, listen to the stories of pain and injustice which our fellow human beings experience. Have an ear open to the sort of knowledge which is not always comfortable, but which makes us truly wise in our conversations with others.

         The next verse reminds us of a basic fact about our world and a case like the one in Ferguson. Verse 16 says, “A gift opens doors; it gives access to the great.” People with wealth, people who give gifts, have access to those who hold power, who make decisions. Those who can give “gifts” are often white people. Why are African-Americans so enraged about Michael Brown? Consider that there are six times as many black men as white men incarcerated in prison or jail, and that ratio is increasing. Let us hear and remember those who can’t afford bail and attorneys and all the other expensive ways those who have the means navigate the judicial system.

         Again verse 17 tells us to listen, to hear the whole story before judging, before deciding who is guilty and who is innocent, “The one who first states a case seems right, until the other comes and cross-examines.” Even when we’ve heard both sides, prayed and tried to understand, we may not truly know what is right. So verse 18 tells us that sometimes the only way to settle things between two powerful contenders is to cast a lot, to flip a coin.

         I doubt there will be many coin tosses in American courtrooms anytime soon, but the idea that sometimes we just can’t know who is right should stick with us. Remember that two weeks ago in Proverbs 16:33 we heard that the cast of the lot is decided by God. We have to leave the final judgment to the Lord. It’s not up to us to decide if Officer Wilson or Michael Brown is more guilty. We may never know. Yet God who made and loves both of them knows, and it is what He knows that matters.

         Verse 19 warns us that bad words can even offend our allies, our friends, and when we speak quarrelsome words to those whom we should love it’s like landing ourselves behind the bars of a castle dungeon. There’s no easy way out when our words separate us.

         It comes down to whether we can live with the things we say or not. Verse 20 talks about being satisfied with “the fruit of the mouth” and “the yield of the lips.” Can we stomach our own words? Watch what you say. In the end you may have to eat those words. As verse 21 declares, the tongue can produce both death and life. Those who like to talk, who love their words, are going to have to swallow whichever fruit they grow.

         Now we come to one of those seemingly abrupt changes of subject with verse 22, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord.” I would agree. I love my wife and believe she is a gift from God. But what has that got to do with how we talk and the words we use with each other?

         On the literal level we understand that finding a good spouse and a good marriage follows from learning to use words well, to speak in ways that show genuine attention and love. One thing I do with couples preparing for marriage is an exercise in active listening and clear assertive speaking. Learn how to say plainly that you need more hugs or a little time by yourself. Listen to those needs without mistakenly thinking your spouse wants more sex or doesn’t like being around you. Good words make good husbands and wives.

         Yet on another level, turn back to Proverbs 8:35 and read what Wisdom says about herself. It’s the same language, “For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord.” Marriage is a good thing, but the highest satisfaction comes when God favors us as we seek the wisdom He gives. Anyone can have that favor from God, married or not. Our lesson from Romans 12:2 told us to be “transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Proverbs slips in this little verse about finding a wife to have us recall that the greatest thing we are seeking is to know and love God and to enjoy Him forever.

         Verse 23 yanks us back into the territory we’ve been in most of this chapter, how we speak to each other, especially how we speak across our differences. It reflects the reality that most of the time in this world the poor are asking for help and the rich are giving them a hard time. We’ve heard enough today to know that’s not how it should be. I have to remember that when I talk to someone I find sleeping in our church doorway. May we all remember it when we meet and exchange words with those who ask us for help.

         The first part of the last verse is tricky to translate. It either talks about having many friends or, as the version I’m reading does, about pretending or playing at friendship. Either way it’s about the fact that so many of our friendships are superficial, casual, taking each other for granted, exchanging many words perhaps, but with little significance. In contrast, the second part is about a different sort of friendship. And I simply have to use the older language, “but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”

         When we set aside the bad words which separate us from each other and from God, when we run into the secure and safe tower of the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we find there a friendship that goes even beyond blood ties. Again in Romans 12, Paul pictures sisters and brothers in Christ all as one body, members of one another, connected closer even than family is connected.

         I’ve seen that happen here. I’ve seen you stick by each other, be there for each other even when family is not. You bring food when one of us is sick. You help out a member who is moving. You offer listening and advice. You loan tools and give financial aid to help when there is a need. And you do it here in the Lord’s church, in the strong tower of His name, as fellow Christians. You do it because you know and want to be like the One who is most of all and before any of us, the Friend who sticks closer than a brother.

         I praise God that you know how to be friends in Jesus’ name and I praise God that you don’t just keep that friendship to yourselves. You show up to show that same friendship in Jesus name to children who will start school next week and to people who have nowhere to go when it’s cold out and to people around the world who need food and medical care and to know the name of Jesus for themselves. You want to be friends with everyone in Jesus’ name, whatever color they are. Jesus’ name is a good word. He is a good Friend. May you and I keep living in that friendship.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated September 7, 2014