The Swear Jar

READ; Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1

James 3:1-12

Sometimes, James can sound downright condescending, can’t he? The brother of Jesus — the outspoken disciple — minces no words. One pastor I heard years ago on the radio said the apostle James teaches us by taking us out behind the woodshed… In our reading today, he does all those things. He tells us we’re weak, we’re filled with evil and contradiction, and that we need to try much, much harder, if we ever expect to be good Christians. James — and we here today — are talking about the tongue, and, specifically, taming it. James says we all make mistakes — often (Verse 2), and only mature Christians don’t, insinuating that we’re far from being mature — that we are, in fact, merely infants in this thing called Christian life. Worse, he continues by saying that we who think we should be teaching others probably should not be doing so, because we’re probably just messing them up. We’re like farm animals — horses — that need to be led around by a bridle and bit. (Verse 3) Why? Our tongues, he says. That is, our language — what we say, how we say it, and who we say it to. James, in short, doesn’t give us very much credit, does he? The Swear Jar Does everyone know what a swear jar is? It’s basically a jar — or a bucket, depending on the size of the bridle and bit we need… And every time we say a bad word, we have to put a certain amount of money into the swear jar. That not only taxes us for the behavior we’re trying to control, but it also gives us a very tangible idea of how awful we can be with our language. And of course, once successful — that is, not having to pay the jar any more — we’ve not only accomplished a great feat, but we’ve now have a small (or large?) account in which to reward our good efforts. Now, most of you know, I wasn’t always a pastor. I hope I’m not bursting anyone’s bubble here, or image of me… But I used to work in a newsroom. If any of you know anything about newsrooms, the conversation and words used among colleagues — and sometimes others — can be quite shocking. In terms of the use of what we’ll call very colorful and creative language, journalists are probably second only to drunken sailors and narrowly surpassing those gathered at a biker bar on a bad day. And that sort of language can be quite contagious, unfortunately. Now there were many among us who were about to be first-time parents, and they were worried that they wouldn’t be able to control their language around their little ones. And so I installed a big glass swear jar in the center of the office, to encourage my colleagues to tame their tongues, so to speak. The idea was that when the jar was filled, we’d have a big pizza party to celebrate our progress. Let’s just say we got sick of pizza very quickly. But, the swear jar certainly was a reminder of how together we could encourage each other and hold one another accountable for our language. And it really helped. Why is that? Ancient wisdom In the days of antiquity, such as with the ancient Jews but maybe more pronounced, the Greek and Roman cultures, there was this huge debate as to whether the body ruled the mind or the mind ruled the body. Some of us might have studied philosophy and, specifically, Plato, and know a bit about what is called dualism. That is the body was bad but the mind was good. That later translated to the idea that it would be good to get rid of the body so that the good soul could be released. I’m oversimplifying, but you get the idea. Plato argued this dualism of mind and body back in 400 BCE. And we can certainly see the results in the culture surrounding the writers of the New Testament, but even the newer Old Testament. We heard in a beautifully poetic and meaningful reading today in The Wisdom of Solomon, that wisdom itself “is the brightness that shines forth from eternal light.” (verse 26). “She can do anything, since she’s one and undivided.” See, it was wisdom, the ancients thought, that could control the body and all the physical things that might be deemed evil. Verse 29: “She’s even brighter than sunlight, for night follows day, but evil can never overcome Wisdom.” The writers of this apocryphal book argue that wisdom is personified as female — they call Wisdom a she. Understand that The Wisdom of Solomon was written in Greek, in Alexandria (Egypt), in the late 1st century BCE to early 1st century CE. The expanded Roman Empire, which popularized Hellenism throughout Europe, the Middle East, into Asia and Northern Africa, began in 27 BCE, but the Greek Empire began way back in the 8th century BCE, and its influence was monumental. So the authors of the The Wisdom of Solomon most likely were trying to work through the concept of the Spirit without really having the language to describe it. Sophia — Wisdom — was that way. And Sophia, in any form it takes, is always feminine. That’s why the early mystics adapted the concept of the Holy Spirit as being a feminine entity. The Spirit was modeled after the language of Sophia. Remember, too, that the concept of the Trinity wasn’t really made concrete until Tertullian in the early part of the 3rd century CE. But of course, Jesus talked about the Spirit, the paraclete, the advocate within us way back in the first century when he lived and even after his resurrection, when we were given the advocate. So there was a whole lot of educated guessing going on here. And James uses so many cultural concepts to talk about this concept of wisdom and Spirit that we might view as somewhat strange influences in the text as well. James uses the language he knows. And he knows dualism was an enormously popular and accepted concept of his times. Thus the arguments he makes are in the languages of the ancients, such as from Sophocles’s Antigone and Philo Judaeus, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, as well as the Greek writer Plutarch, who first coined the tongue as the tiny, but powerful, rudder of a great ship. There is the concept of Gehenna — the burning trash heap outside the walls of Jerusalem, which gave way to the concept of the fires of hell, and even the concepts of the world of iniquity — this dualistic physical world — and the wheel of existence — that is, the concept of fate. Still, James is reaching for something more here: And that is that through wisdom, that is, through the Spirit, we are able to overcome the bad that dwells within our hearts. Jesus tells us in Luke 6.45, that “A good person produces good from the good treasury of the inner self, while an evil person produces evil from the evil treasury of the inner self. The inner self overflows with words that are spoken.” Or we can look at what Jesus tells us in Matt. 12.34: “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” This, then, is what James is referring to in a language that people can understand. James’s letter, most likely written toward the end of the 1st century CE, wasn’t targeting one specific church, like many of Paul’s letters were; it was addressing a multitude over a vast region. A region that included Gentiles, not just Jews. We know this because of the other language in James’s letter. Ship without a rudder… Although the title of this sermon is called The Swear Jar, is swearing all that we’re talking about here? Certainly not. What are some of the many ways that we are hurtful with our tongues? Certainly, saying bad things, like swearing, to one another; But also saying false things — lies and those things which mislead people — the 8th Commandments teaches us: Do not give false testimony; Gossip — Ever notice how when a person gossips, the gossip floodgates tend to open up? It’s infectious!; Judgment: Telling people what they should do, as if passing moral judgment on one another, when the only true judge is God; And speaking when really we should just be listening to people. Not trying to fix them, but to just stand in solidarity with them. Now, we’re all guilty of all this stuff, aren’t we? If we’re being honest, we know we aren’t perfect. We know, too, that what we say cannot only damage others, but it can cause others to do the same. We live in a world today in which truth is no longer what it used to be. Truth was a fact. Now truth is whatever we chose to believe is a fact. There’s a big difference there. And so if we call something true only because we may believer it is, and it’s false, and — more — if we accept this behavior, then the lines between what is true and what is false is blurred — and we stop believing each other. Worse, we stop trusting each other. And when we stop trusting each other, we begin divisions with each other. And that’s an enormous danger in our society today. We only hear what we want to hear, and we only believe what we want to believe. And we flat-out stop listening to one another because we don’t trust one another anymore. And we passively condone mistrust because we stop speaking out against it. Society crumbles further. And the kingdom contracts all around us. What’s within What does it take — to use James’s language — to bridle the tongue? A clean heart. A good heart. A heart that is open, A heart that is filled with God’s love. Listen: When we are surrounded by people day in and day out who cannot bridle their tongues, we will not bridle ours. When we keep company with those whose hearts are closed, bitter, fearful and hateful, our hearts will be consumed as well. Like a child, after a while, we stop questioning, we stop defending and we accept what is said as being true. Fortunately — and let’s all praise God for this — our tongues can turn that ship around. James tells us in Verse 9: “With (our tongues) we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth.” He says we can no longer do this. Either our hearts are good, or they are corrupt. I hate to think of my heart that Jesus gave his for as having any corrosion in it at all. The thing is, as James tells us, is that we just do. Can we help it? Hear the good news: Yes, we can. With the power of the Holy Spirit, who lives within us when we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. That is the wisdom we’re given. We cannot do it alone. But here’s what we can do: * We can become convicted to want to work toward what John Wesley calls perfection; * We can become convicted to want to right the wrongs in our lives and in the world that surrounds us; * We can become convicted to want to teach our children The Way, the Truth and the Life, and leave for them a better world, one that loves and speaks truth; and * We can become convicted of wanting to make ourselves more like Christ and less like the corruption we see in the world; then we lean — we lean with all our weight — into the Holy Spirit. We ask forgiveness from God; We confess our sins to one another before God; We acknowledge our Lord and Savior Jesus’s Christ’s saving grace; and we work hard. We pray HARD, “God, through the power of your Spirit, help me speak life, not death, into the world;” “Help me to expand into the kingdom that your son Jesus died for;” “Help me to live into the image of God that you created me in;” “And help me to be a teacher — even held doubly accountable — that empowers truth, love, mercy, solidarity and grace into all of your children.”

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