You recognized the sound of your mother's voice while still in your mother's womb. The sound of her voice spurred your growth and accompanied your birth into this world. The tongue is a powerful force that may be used to bring death or life. Jesus demonstrated the power of the tongue to kill when he destroyed a fig tree with his words. God demonstrated the power of speech when God created the world through speaking it into existence as described in Genesis. Our text today challenges us to use our tongue for building up rather than tearing down. Listen for that message in this reading from 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11:
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, "There is peace and security," then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.
Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
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Frank is sitting in his car in a large mall parking lot, and nobody is coming near him because he's holding a shotgun to his throat. The SWAT team and the hostage negotiation team are called in. The SWAT team takes positions behind other cars and vehicles, trying to not agitate the man. As they wait, they fill in the background details.
They're looking at a man in his early thirties who lost his customer service job at a large electronics store six months earlier for yelling at customers and coworkers. He'd interviewed for several jobs, but didn't get any of them. He was abusive verbally to his wife and two young children. A month earlier, his wife and kids moved in with her parents in another city. She told him that she needed a break, and he needed to get his act together. The landlord of their apartment kicked him out at the same time because they hadn't paid the rent. He moved into a shabby room in a poor section of the city. He stopped bathing and shaving and ate next to nothing. The last straw was the restraining order he'd received the day before he ended up at the mall parking lot.
Now the lead negotiator is talking calmly to the man. "Frank, this is Lieutenant Evans, I'm going to be talking with you, because there is another way out of this besides hurting yourself. I know you don't think you have any choice, but you really do."
Frank exclaims: "You don't know anything. You're just like everyone else. Leave me alone!"
Lieutenant Evans replies: "I don't think I can do that. You're here in the middle of a mall parking lot with a gun to your throat, and I need to help you find another way out of this situation."
"Go away! I don't need anyone's help!" Frank replies. And so the conversation proceeds for an hour, with stretches of silence lasting several minutes or more.
As the information about Frank comes in, it becomes clear that he's not an evil person, just a very disturbed and angry one. The SWAT team is poised to "take him out" if he threatens anyone else with his gun, but everyone except Frank would like to end this peacefully. However, the odds of that don't look so good.
After an hour and a half, another negotiator, Detective Kramer, arrives. Kramer is a graduate of one of the hostage negotiation training sessions I've delivered to police and FBI hostage negotiators. Detective Kramer's been briefed about Frank's background and the status of this negotiation and offers Lieutenant Evans a different suggestion: "Here's what I want you to say to the guy: 'I'll bet you feel that nobody knows what it's like to have tried everything else and be stuck with this as your only way out, isn't that true?'"
Evans replies, "Say what?"
Kramer repeats the suggestion: "Yeah, go on, say this to the guy: 'I'll bet you feel that nobody knows what it's like to have tried everything else and be stuck with this as your only way out, isn't that true?'"
Evans complies and when he says that to Frank, Frank too replies with: "Say what?" Evans repeats it to Frank, who this time responds: "Yeah, you're right, nobody knows and nobody cares!"
Kramer tells Evans, "Good, you got a 'Yes'; now you're in. Let's build on that." He adds a second question for the lead negotiator to ask: "Yeah, and I'll bet you feel that nobody knows what it's like to start every day believing that there's more chance that something will go wrong than go right, isn't that true, too?" To that, Frank replies: "Yeah, every single day! The same thing happens."
Kramer tells Evans to repeat what he's heard and get an additional confirmation: "And because nobody knows how bad it is and nobody cares and because nothing goes right and everything goes wrong, that's why you're in your car with a gun wanting to end it all. True?" "True," Frank replied, his voice showing the earliest signs of calming down. "Tell me more. What exactly has happened to you? When was your life last okay, and what's happened since then to turn it to crap?" Evans invites. Frank starts to recount the events since he was fired from his job. When he pauses, Evans responds with: "Really . . . tell me more." Frank continues describing the problems he's had.
At some point, with guidance from Kramer, Evans says: "And all of that's caused you to feel angry? Or frustrated? Or discouraged? Or hopeless? Or what exactly?" Evans waits for Frank to pick the word that best fits how he feels. Frank finally owns up to: "Fed up." Evans follows up with: "So you felt fed up and when you got that restraining order, that was the breaking point?" "Yeah," Frank confirms. His voice, once hostile, is quieter now. In a few sentences, Frank's gone from refusing to communicate to listening and beginning to have a conversation.
What just happened? The most critical step in persuasion—the step I refer to as "buy-in"—has begun. That's the step where a person goes from resisting to listening and then to considering what's being said. What caused Frank to start listening and begin to "buy in" to what Lieutenant Evans was saying? That shift was no accident. The secret lay in saying the words that Frank was thinking but not saying. When the lieutenant's words matched what Frank was thinking, Frank leaned into the conversation and began to say, "Yes." [Goulston M.D., Mark; Keith Ferrazzi (2009-09-15). Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through toAbsolutely Anyone (p. 5-7). AMACOM. Kindle Edition.]
Our role is to encourage one another in Christ. We are to build one another up. We do that through our words and deeds. How we speak and what we say are the ammunition we use to strike one another or the power we use to heal one another.
Jesus demonstrated the negative power of the tongue when he cursed a fig tree that did not produce good fruit and the fig tree withered and died. So did he symbolically illustrate the power of the spoken word to have effect on material objects.
On the positive use of the tongue, in Genesis we read God created the night and the day and God said that it was good. We try to escape the night, the darkness, our shadow selves. But there is much power there inside us. Our shadow selves may be binding us. Our shadow selves may cause us to sleep walk through life unaware of what is going on in our lives or how. For example, share story of my mom and dad laughing when I asked why they needed another child other than me? They thought it was a funny question from a child but I took their laughter as mockery which is not how they meant it. That moment was a significant one in my development and left a scar in my shadow self that only recently have I been able to recognize and heal. The little things we say and how we say them are the things that will replay before our eyes when we see our life relived before we die. So let us be mindful and awake to how our words and actions effect other people. That is the message of our text.
On this Stewardship Sunday the most significant gift we may give God is control of our tongue. No other body part may be used for such good or such evil. No other body part is harder to control than our tongue. Self control is a foundation for Christian living. We cannot encourage one another is we do not have control of our tongues.
Jesus once told a crazy parable about a wedding banquet. A king invited his courtly, wealthy friends to his son's wedding banquet and none of them showed up. So he sent his servants out to invite people from the streets, anyone they could find, to come to the wedding banquet. Then when these common people showed up, pulled in from the street, and they were having a great time eating and drinking. Then the king spotted a guest who was not wearing the proper attire and he went ballistic. He demanded this inappropriately dressed guest be thrown out of the banquet feast.
This is a parable about us. We come to church dressed in our church clothes because we know on Sunday morning that is what we are supposed to wear. We come to church with our Sunday language and nice words to each other. Then we go home and deconstruct every conversation and encounter we had with someone at church that morning, what the preacher said or did that was wrong, any mistakes we noticed the liturgist make, any wrong note sung by the choir or the person in the pew next to us in singing a hymn. And Jesus says to us, that is wrong. You are not getting it. You are missing the point. You must wear the right clothes at all times in all places. The right clothes refers to your tongue and how you use it as an instrument of healing or destruction.
You must wear wedding clothes every day all day means you must use positive words that build up rather than tear down every day all day. Otherwise, just because you show up on church on Sunday morning and use nice words from 9 am until noon on Sunday does not mean you belong here at the wedding banquet of the king's daughter. It is insane to think that every person on the street should wear their finest wedding banquet clothes every single day just in case the king should on the spur of the moment invite them to his son's wedding banquet. That is absurd. And Jesus uses that absurd image to make his absurd demand that every moment of every day at all times we must be aware, awake, and using our best language to build people up rather than tear them down. That is a tall order. It is just about as hard to do that as it would be to wear your finest dress clothes around your house all day just in case President Obama calls you up to come attend a wedding banquet in the White House. But we must be prepared to get such an unlikely call because that "staying on your toes" attitude is the one that Jesus is after. That is the key to the kingdom. Paul said he was always prepared to preach the gospel whether in a boat or in a jail, whether in winter or summer, in season or out of season, in Rome or in Jerusalem. This is a radical interpretation of the Boy Scout motto: Always be prepared.
Jesus is more interested in what we say than what we wear. He scolded so-called religious people who wore the proper clothes but did not use their tongues to build people up. Remember Jesus in the temple with the publican and the Pharisee. The Pharisee cut the publican down but the publican used his tongue to repent. Jesus approved the publican and castigated the Pharisee.
Our text today says we are to encourage one another. In the New Testament book of James we read the tongue is a raging fire that can get out of control. We also find this advice: "Be slow to speech." I took that literally when I was in Junior High School. That is why I speak so slowly today. We are to think before we speak. That is good advice for everyone.
In 1996, Powell was the keynote speaker at a national conference for a leading residential real estate company's top producers. By that point, he'd achieved tremendous popularity with the American public and was being considered as a presidential nominee. General Powell had the audience in the palm of his hand. He urged the audience to give back to their communities. He spoke passionately of his gratitude for his family, childhood, and friends. And he exhorted us all to "do well by doing good." At the end of his talk, he called for questions. Still feeling the warm glow of his inspiring words, we were totally unprepared for what happened next. "General Powell," the first questioner said, "I understand that your wife once suffered from depression, had to take medicine, and was even in a mental hospital. Do you want to comment on that?" You could hear all 8,000 people in the auditorium gasp at the inappropriateness—not to mention the cruelty—of the question. In the silence that followed, we all wondered how Powell would react to being blindsided. Edmund Muskie had thrown away his presidential hopes years earlier when a reporter asked about his wife's sanity, and he started to cry. What would Powell do under similar circumstances? Here's exactly what he did. He looked at the questioner. He paused for a moment. And then he simply responded: "Excuse me—the person you love more than anyone is living in hell, and you don't do whatever you can to get her out. Do you have a problem with that, sir?"
He reached everyone in the audience and touched them to their core. And I have no doubt he reached the questioner just as powerfully as a fist in the face would have—without having to lift a finger to do it. That's poise under pressure. And if you can achieve that same poise, it'll get you successfully through any stressful, high-stakes encounters that life hands you. [Goulston M.D., Mark; Keith Ferrazzi (2009-09-15). Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through toAbsolutely Anyone (p. 35). AMACOM. Kindle Edition.]
Watch what you say and how you say it so that you are building people up rather than tearing them down. Wield the power of life and death with subtlety and wisdom. Practice stewardship of your tongue.
The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon on November 13 - 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Stewardship Dedication Sunday at St. John's Presbyterian Church, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035
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