Summit Presbyterian Church
July 14, 2013
As most of you know, my 6-year old, antiquated, no bells and whistles cell phone broke last week, so I had to buy a new one. First I went to the phone store, where I was greeted by an array of phones, from the most basic – a large-keyboard flip phone – to the most delicate smartphones which allow you to answer email, find your way to Idaho, listen to music, film videos and surf the web – among other delights. I was clear with the salesperson – I thought – that I didn’t want to pay more on my monthly bill, that I didn’t need internet or email. But when asked, I said I’d consider a smartphone so I’d have the capacity to do those things later on if I wanted to. Well, many many words later: words from her I didn’t understand that made me feel old; words from me that she didn’t seem to understand that made me wonder if she wasn't very bright – many words later I arrived at the cash register with an iphone 4 in my hand. But there I realized that indeed my salesperson was very bright for I came very close to buying a phone that would require me to spend an extra $30 a month. She lost interest when I said I only wanted a basic phone, and I discovered that while there were such phones on display, there were none in the store to buy! So although I was impressed with the salesperson, and sympathetic – I’m sure she was only following instructions – I had to conclude that in the sales pitch she was - to paraphrase Proverbs 14:25 -- “a false witness speaking deceitfully!”
So next I went online where I found a basic phone and decided to switch carriers. But then I had to choose a new plan and was confronted with that set of existential questions: How many anytime minutes do I need? How many texts do I write (or read) each day? What's more important in those late night “free” hours, talking with family and friends -- or sleeping? I was tempted to check “unlimited” talk and text, but I also remembered the warnings against excess speech in Proverbs, 10:19: “When words are many transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech.” Or “The wise lay up knowledge, but the babbling of fools brings ruin near,” -- and then there’s the famous warning of James on the dangers of the tongue. So I decided not to give mine free rein, and chose a plan with limits. (If I had children or traveled a lot I would have chosen differently).
These biblical warnings on foolish and harmful speech are over 2,000 years old, but they’re more relevant today than ever. Foolish babbling or "a tongue that curses those who are made in the image of God" (James) has even more power in the age of smart-phones, email, twitter and Facebook. When James said “how great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!" he had no idea how big a fire could be set with a tongue empowered by technology. We know the horror stories: the politicians whose careers have ended because of a careless text or email; the teenagers whose rash words on the internet have led to hurt, shame or even jail; and then there's that pesky “reply to all" key. Indeed, in the age of Facebook when a post goes to hundreds of “friends,” and emails can go vial, truly the “prudent are restrained in speech.” And just as the sages of ancient Israel who collected these proverbs were especially concerned with teaching the young, in this smart-phone age we must teach our children well - especially when their brains haven't matured enough to understand the eternal and pandemic nature of cyber communication. It’s well for us to teach them Proverbs, chapter 22, verse 23: To watch over mouth and tongue is to keep out of trouble.
Now to keep our children and ourselves out of trouble, we may be tempted to play it very safe: to post only about our breakfast on Facebook; to email only to set up meetings; to never twitter and tweet; to listen and look too long before speaking, to choose silence more often than not. But in Proverbs, and in James, "silence" is not the alternative to babbling, cursing, or false witness. Silence is not the alternative to gossip, lying, or rash and hurtful words. Silence is not the alternative to foolish speech; the alternative is wise and truthful speech, a speech that grows from righteousness. Such speech brings healing and life, comfort and encouragement. Listen to these biblical proverbs: "the mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life; "the tongue of the wise brings healing." "Anxiety weighs down the human heart, but a good word cheers it up." "Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body." "One who gives an honest answer, gives a kiss on the lips." (24:26). Wise and righteous speech is important between friends and family, and also in a classroom, in a courtroom, in the halls of congress: Proverbs: "A truthful witness saves lives, but one who utters lies is a betrayer." James reminds us that we praise God and proclaim the gospel in speech (as well as deeds). After warning that the tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison, James then says, "with it we bless the Lord and Father." He doesn't think that's right -- how can it be that blessing and cursing come from the same tongue -- but it does. But we do bless the Lord with our words. We tell the story of Jesus and his love.
But here's the catch. It's not only the foolish who court danger with their speech. It's not only the foolish who get into trouble when they speak up. So do the righteous, the kind, the loving, the faithful (which we all are, at least some of the time). Holy speech is full of risk. Think of the risk, and sometimes the danger, in these words: "I love you." "Will you marry me?" "The war in Iraq (or Vietnam, or Afghanistan) is wrong." (or right, depending on where you are saying it.) "Climate change is real and humans are causing it (climate scientists have been hounded for saying those words)" "Racism is still alive and well, even among people of good intentions, like here at Summit." "I believe Jesus rose from the dead." -- Or – perhaps in a different church:,"I believe the resurrection is revealed metaphor.”
So what are the risks? We risk making mistakes – unwittingly hurting friends, ourselves, strangers. James put it well, earlier in his letter: Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle . . . [but] all of us make many mistakes. We say clumsy things at funerals. We say racist things when we talk about race, we say sexist things when we talk about gender. We preach bad theology and give wrong directions.
We risk rejection when we extend ourselves with our words, in love that may not be requited: "Will you play with me?" or "would you like to go out to dinner with me tomorrow night?" or "Would you like to come with me to church?"
We risk conflict, and sometimes even persecution, when we speak truth, including political and gospel truths. I don’t know how many of you had a chance to read the obituary of Alan Thomson that’s on our bulletin board. Alan was persecuted for his Holy speech, his proclamation of the gospel of peace and reconciliation in a time of cold and hot wars, fear and anti-communist fervor. The world’s prisons are filled with people who have spoken out against injustice, or who have said truthful words about their leaders. But Jesus never promised us a safe life. The words of Jesus were used against him. He went to the cross. Following him is a potentially dangerous undertaking, if we're serious.
This past week, Toshi Seeger, the wife of folksinger Pete Seeger, died at age 91 (Pete Seeger is 94). Pete Seeger is known for his words: often provocative words of peace, justice, truth telling -- from knee-deep in the big muddy to this land is your land to Oh Sacred World, Now Wounded. His words brought him success and joys, but they also got him into trouble. He took risks. Now Toshi was behind the scenes -- not known for her public words, but rather for her organizing and practical support. But a few years ago, in a concert in NY, Peter Seeger sang some words that Toshi had written in 1954. They're additional verses to "Turn, Turn, Turn," -- that wonderful song by Pete Seeger set the words of Ecclesiastes to music. Like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes is another book of Wisdom in the Bible, and Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3 begins: For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die, a time to weep, and a time to laugh, and so on. . . including the last line, a time for war, and a time for peace . . that Pete Seeger changed to a time of war and a time of peace. And verse &: a time to be silent and a time to speak.
Toshi wrote verses for their children, who were 6 and 8 years old. I thought I’d end with them in her honor, because they're pleasant words, sweet like honeycomb, and good for the soul:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to dress and a time to eat; a time to sit and rest your feet; a time to teach, a time to learn, a time for all to take their turn. A time to cry and make a fuss; a time to leave and catch the bus; a time for quiet, a time for talk, a time to run and a time to walk. A time to get a time to give, a time to remember, a time to forgive; a time to hug and a time to kiss, a time to close your eyes and wish. A time for dirt, a time for soap, a time for tears a time for hope; a time for fall a time for spring, a time to hear the robin sing.
Proverbs 15:23: To make an apt answer is a joy to anyone, and a word in season, how good it is!