Sunday, September 13th, 2015 – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scriptures: Mark 8:27-38, James 3:1-12
Hymns: “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, “Standing on the Promises”, “How Firm a Foundation”, “Be Still My Soul”, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, “Be Thou My Vision”, “These Thousand Hills”
Tame the Twitter
So there’s this basketball player currently in the NBA, power forward for my home team, the Phoenix Suns. He’s a former Kansas Jayhawk, but we won’t hold that against him. Well, some of you might.
His name is Markieff Morris. He’s played his entire NBA career, five seasons now, for the Suns. A couple of years ago, the Suns traded to acquire his twin brother, Marcus. The first season that they played together, they did very well. This last season, though, things didn’t go as well. Markieff kept on playing just as well as he ever has, but Marcus’ production went pretty steeply downhill. To make matters worse, Marcus became a somewhat toxic influence in the locker room, at one point yelling at Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek in the middle of a game.
Anyway, a couple of months ago, when the Suns were trying to clear salary cap space to sign a big name free agent, they ended up trading Marcus to the Detroit Pistons. It made perfect basketball business sense. He was no longer a good fit for the team, and they needed the salary cap space. Anybody who looked at the trade could tell that it was a business decision, not a personal one.
Anybody, that is, except for Markieff Morris. When the Suns traded his twin brother, he pretty much lost his mind. He has spent the last two months blasting the Suns, insisting to anybody who will listen that he has no intention of playing for them again. It’s gotten so bad that the NBA, this last week, took the step of fining him $10,000 for shooting off his mouth.
Here’s the thing about this whole debacle. Markieff Morris was enabled by a little tiny website known as Twitter. I would estimate that about 85-90% of his complaints over the last two months have come to the public via his Tweets. And it has caused some serious problems, too. Much like a cigarette butt tossed into a dry field can cause an unstoppable conflagration, Markieff’s Tweets have left him in a position where the Suns no longer want to employ him, the team’s fans want him gone, the NBA wants him to shut his mouth, and no other team in the league has any interest in employing him until such time as he gets rid of this insidious attitude he has developed.
I’m sure Bill Self and the University of Kansas are just as proud as they can be.
You see, these are exactly the kind of shenanigans that the author of James warns against. He compares the tongue to small flame, but if you’re familiar with the hymn-slash-campfire song “Pass It On”, you know that it only takes a spark to get a fire going. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire,” James warns us. Basically, he’s saying, if you’re not careful with those shenanigans, they become evil, and then they’re not really shenanigans at all – they become the work of hell.
We’ve heard time and time again in our lives about the potential for evil that comes with the words we speak. Remember Thumper, from Bambi? “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” How many movies have had their primary conflict based on a misunderstanding borne of gossip and rumor? Even the crucifixion of Jesus! The Pharisees and the scribes stirred up hatred against him, to the point that the people of Jerusalem stopped listening to reason and demanded his crucifixion by Rome. Gossip and rumor-mongering by power-hungry, jealous jackals sent the Messiah to death on the cross.
Now, it is, of course, important to remember that Jesus knew that’s where he was eventually headed. He spoke on more than one occasion on the fact that the Son of Man – Jesus himself – would be handed over and crucified. But even in one of the exchanges that led up to that, we saw the deleterious effects of the unchecked tongue.
Now, I realize that, much like computers, the Internet, and electricity, Twitter wasn’t around back in the time of Jesus. I’m pretty sure, though, if Jesus were alive today, Twitter would’ve been used heavily both by him and by his disciples. In fact, I wonder what this exchange would’ve looked like on Twitter…
We begin with Jesus asking his disciples who the people say that he is. Now, this is an example of a place where we can see the power of the tongue being used for GOOD. Jesus wants to know what the people are saying about him. Are they spreading his word? Are they speaking well of him? Speaking ill of him?
Obviously, his disciples, being the people on the ground in Israel, are the most likely to know. And so he wants to know what they’re hearing.
One of the prophets. Perhaps even John the Baptist, Moses, or Elijah. Now, that might’ve been what the people were saying, but I have to wonder if Jesus felt like they should’ve known better…
So after gauging the disciples’ temperature on who the people say he is, Jesus wants to know who they say he is.
And this is the point at which we can almost expect the disciple Simon Peter to make like Old Faithful and do what he does best: open mouth, insert foot. But sometimes people surprise us…
Yes, Simon Peter, he of the tendency to make some of the most boneheaded mistakes, also had a tendency to be the most faithful of the disciples. Even the argument about his abandoning Jesus and denying him three times on the night of his betrayal rings a little bit hollow – after all, Peter was the only one of the disciples who was still actually anywhere even near Jesus, which is how he ended up getting put in the position to deny him.
Of course, Jesus is happy about Peter’s faithfulness…
But he doesn’t want the disciples to tell anybody. While that might seem counter-intuitive, I think we might look at this and see Jesus’ realization that the tongues of the disciples are themselves small fires that can light bigger fires. While this would eventually be a good thing – on, say, Pentecost with actual tongues of flame – at this point, he didn’t want people to say he was the Messiah because they were TOLD that he was. He wanted people to see and believe. And if they were going to see and believe, unfortunately, some bad stuff had yet to happen.
I have to say, if I was one of the disciples, this would be a massive bummer. Here’s the teacher, the one who Simon Peter just declared to be the Messiah, and now he’s saying that he’s going to be rejected and die. That likely didn’t sit well with the disciples. It certainly didn’t sit well with Peter.
Peter really kind of gets a bum rap here. I don’t think he said anything that any of us wouldn’t have said. If Bob Elliott were to get up here in this pulpit and say, “Hey, by the way, the KKK is going to come along next week and crucify me,” I’m pretty sure there would be a human wall – a well-armed human wall – around Bob by the time they got here. It’s human nature to be protective of the ones that we love. But in Peter’s case, what he did was also precisely the opposite of what Jesus had been trying to teach him and the other disciples.
You see, Jesus couldn’t have Peter going around contradicting him just because he didn’t like what he was hearing. Jesus had a mission to fulfill, and if one of his most trusted disciples was contradicting him, that would lead to confusion and discord among the people he was trying to teach. The small flame of Peter’s tongue would lead to a fire among Jesus’ followers, and that could derail the entire mission that he was trying to fulfill.
And therein lies the problem we experience today. Our tongues, those tiny flames, are bad enough as they are, but they’ve been given a boost these last ten years or so – a boost called social networking. Jesus, Peter, and the rest of the disciples may not have had Twitter, but we sure do – Twitter AND Facebook. And the problem is, we seem to forget ourselves when we log on – we unleash the flames with regularity.
I see it most commonly when we, as Christians, disagree with one another. Somebody will post something on Facebook or Twitter that sparks disagreement, but instead of conducting themselves civilly and politely disagreeing, people will embark upon what is, appropriately, known as a flame war. Insults and invective will be hurled back and forth, and before you know it, the original point of argument has been completely forgotten, with the war of words having devolved into a torrent of finger-pointing and insults. Feelings are hurt, friendships even broken. These flame wars end up being exactly the kind of evil that James warned against in his third chapter.
And part of the problem is that far too often, we have a tendency to forget that most often, when somebody posts something on social media, it’s done not out of malice, but because it’s something that they believe in strongly and about which they are quite passionate. Whether it’s Black Lives Matter, supporting our police, gun control, gay rights, Kim Davis, Islam, the Republican Presidential field, you name it, most people, and especially those of us who claim to follow Christ, don’t go on social media and put things up because they’re trying to be hateful or malicious, but because they have strong feelings about the matter.
It’s how we react to those posts that tends to be the problem.
And that problem has spread. It has enabled hatred and malice the world over. You see vile and spiteful words coming from groups overseas who want to see America destroyed – where do you think they got the idea? We had Facebook and Twitter first, after all. You see a politician spend a month on Twitter dumping vitriol and crude insults upon a female journalist for no other reason than she stood up for her rights as a woman and questioned his treatment of women – where do you think he got the idea? He thinks that that’s what the people want to see.
In this age in which we live, it’s no longer enough just to tame our tongues. We have to tame the virtual extensions of our tongues as well. And believe me when I say, I am no saint in this regard. Remember last week when I quoted I Timothy 1 and said that I am the chief of sinners? Well, while I’ve gotten much better about it as I’ve grown older, there was a time when I was a no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners, go full blast on Facebook sort of individual. It was only when I accepted the call to ministry that I began to realize that perhaps I needed to tame my tongue, lest I start a fire I couldn’t control.
This sermon today is not going to end the battling tongues of hell that dominate social media. I have no pretenses there. But each of us can do our part. It’s simple. See something you disagree with? That’s fine. Disagree with it! This earth would be a pretty boring place if we all agreed on everything. But be civil about it. Be Christ-like about it. Remember that the words you say can cause damage that you can’t even imagine, no matter how insignificant those words may seem.
And truly, this is something we must do. It is a call to live not for ourselves, but for Christ. For you see, Jesus had one more thing to say to his disciples, and I’m going to let him have the last word here…
Let us be mindful of the words of Christ, and deny ourselves for the sake of his Gospel. Let our tongues be always instruments to lead others to follow him.