Proper 19 (Sept. 11-17)
Texts: James 3:1-12;
BREAKING A ‘CYCLE OF NATURE’
Last week, Daisy the Clown gave us a great start on our Sunday School year with the story of Noah and the flood. And Pastor Mary happened to mention the old comedy classic about Noah by Bill Cosby. Well, that brought back great memories of listening to that record when I was a kid, so I went out and bought a copy of the CD version this week! Sure enough, my boys have loved it, asking to take it to school to share with their friends. They walk around the house repeating the funniest lines.
We’ll be continuing with the Noah story for five weeks now in Sunday School, so I thought I’d get us off to a start this morning by playing the last part of that old Bill Cosby classic (1):
Of course, Noah had a heck of a job, really. He had to go out and collect all the animals in the world, by twos. Two mosquitoes, male and female. He had to keep telling the rabbits, “Only two! Only two! Only two!” So we find Noah pulling up the last two animals, two hippos, and he’s really in a hurry to get them up, because he’s afraid that the Lord’s going to call him and ask him to do something else. His nerves are shot. This is one a heck of a job for a man six hundred years old. So we find him pulling up the last two hippos up, and, of course, the Lord does call him there:Noah: Come on, fat hippos, hurry up. Come on, will you please?
Noah: What! What do you want?
Lord: You’ve got to take one of those hippos out and bring in another one.
Noah: What for?
Lord: Because you’ve got two males down there, and you need to bring in a female.
Noah: I’m not bringing nothing in. You change one of them.
Lord: Come on, you know I don’t work like that.
Noah: Yea, well, I’m sick and tired of this. I’ve had enough of this stuff. I’ve been working all day, working for days and days. I’m sick and tired of this…
Lord: How long can you tread water?
Noah: Yea, well, I’ve got news for you. I’m sick and tired of this whole mess. The whole neighborhood’s out there laughing at me. They’re all having a grand time, at good ol’ Noah there. I went out and got my best friend Larry. I said, ‘Larry, listen, I’ve been talking with the Lord.’ Larry said, ‘Oh, really?’ I said, ‘Yea, yea, listen. Lord, Larry. Larry, Lord.’ You walked off there, laughing. I had them all up there laughing at me. Do you know I’m the only guy in this neighborhood with an ark? People around there laughing — picket signs, walking up and down. I’m sick and tired of this stuff here. People are walking around, ‘How are you doing, Tarzan? How’s everything up there?’ I’m sick and tired of this mess here. You’re supposed to know all and see all, and you let me go out there and bring in a pregnant elephant. You give me no manual for delivery or nothing. Never told me the thing was pregnant. There’s good ol’ Noah, waiting underneath the elephant. Bro-o-o-o-m! Right on top of good ol’ Noah! I’m sick and tired of this mess here. I’ve had enough of all this stuff. You’re running around, supposed to know all and see all, like I said before. You let me go out there and do all this stuff here, and you never even looked in the bottom of that ark. Have you looked down there? No! Who’s going to clean up that mess down there? Not me, I’ll tell you that! I’ve had enough of this. I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m letting all these animals out. [Thunder sounds, and the sound of rain begins in the background, as Noah continues his tirade:] And then I’m going to burn down this ark. And I’m going to Florida somewhere, because you haven’t done nothing. I’m sick and tired of this all mess. You’re fooling around . . . and you haven’t done nothing you’ve said . . . and you’ve got it … raining. . . . It’s not a shower, is it? O.K, Lord, me and you, right? Because I knew, all the time, everything was true….
That’s fun, isn’t it? But I have to confess using it to lead into a much more serious matter. This not-so-laughing matter that I want to get to involves laughing, our laughing at other people. Noah, through the imagination of Bill Cosby, tells us that Noah was the laughing stock of his neighborhood. Everyone was laughing at good ol’ Noah.
We might even say that Noah was subject to his own kind of flood before it started raining. Listen to these words of the psalmist, who begins the psalm with the image of being in a flood, but listen carefully to what the flood of waters is an image for (Psalms 69:1-4a):
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God. More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; many are those who would destroy me, my enemies who accuse me falsely.
In other words, what comes out of mouths can start a flood that can wash over another person and drown them in laughs of derision. We can destroy another person’s reputation. Have you ever been the brunt of other people’s laughter and gossip? It isn’t a laughing matter. The psalmist says that it feels like being drowned.
The apostle James, in our second lesson this morning, uses another image. He says, “the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.” Wow! A flood that can drown another person. A fire that can consume. Are we making too big of a deal out of the power of the human tongue? The words we speak about another person? What we’re basically talking about here is gossip — or at least begins with gossip. Even when the gossip grows into something as serious as actual false accusations in a court of law, the kind that put our Lord up on the cross, even these accusations most often began with gossip, right? So, are we making too big a deal out of this? The apostle James doesn’t think so. The psalmist doesn’t think so. Gossip is a serious matter.
How serious? The apostle James says that the sin of our tongues “sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.” The cycle of nature? Set on fire by hell? What could he mean by this? I think he means this. When our desires begin to mix it up and bring us into conflict with each other, there is a “cycle of nature” that goes all the way back to our human beginnings. Even before we had spoken language and used our tongues, our earlier ancestors could gesture. They could point their fingers in a gesture of accusation and blame. When our tongues became involved, too, we were off and running. You see, I think that when we human beings are in conflict with one another, our most natural cycle for bringing a relative amount of peace has been to use our tongues to get the gossip going, to get the accusations going, in order to unify one group of folks at the expense of one, or at the expense of a less powerful group, a minority. This is the cycle of nature for us that brings us our brand of peace, but it is a peace that comes like a flood of waters, or a consuming fire, over someone else, who most assuredly doesn’t experience it as peace.
This is the very depth of our sin that I believe our Lord came to expose on the cross. He descended into the hell of our brand of peace that unifies some at the expense of others. Already at the beginning of chapter three in Mark’s gospel, we read that the leaders of the people began to gossip. They began to conspire against Jesus (3:6). In chapter 6, it’s some of Jesus’ own family that yields to the gossip in their hometown of Nazareth, and they begin to make excuses for Jesus: that he might be slightly out of his mind. In this morning’s Gospel, Peter uses his tongue to make a true confession. But then after Jesus begins to reveal to them the way things work, that he will be handed over to the gossip and accusations and be killed, Peter uses his tongue to rebuke Jesus. And Jesus’ response is downright shocking: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Satan, the Lord of hell? Yes, for Satan is the Accuser. Satan is the personified power and principal behind this cycle of nature of ours. It’s as if there’s a ready supply of accusations waiting to well up from hell and drown someone.
But careful! This is not to blame Satan! That’s what the satanic principal is: to blame others, even if it’s Satan himself. No, notice who Jesus poses against God in rebuking Peter. Not Satan. No, he calls Peter “Satan,” and tells him that he is on the side of humans. It is us who are ultimately responsible for this principal of accusation that has consumed victims since the beginning of time. Peter, in failing to understand how Jesus has come to expose and defeat that principal, is in danger of succumbing to it. Peter, if he doesn’t listen to Jesus and get on God’s side, will give in to this cycle of nature that begins in hell, the hell that Jesus descended into, in order that he might finally expose it and thus begin to disempower it.
And thank God that that wasn’t all. Jesus didn’t just expose it, robbing it of its ultimate power, he forgave it, too. Thank God, because Peter did end up succumbing to it, denying Jesus three times. And we, his latter day disciples continue to succumb to it as well. Have you ever noticed that gossip seems even more frequent around churches, rather than less? That’s because we still think that Jesus has somehow called us to religion, to ways of dividing between who’s right and who’s wrong. Such divisions are the fertile ground for gossip. Thinking oneself religious, righteous, is a quick step away from gossiping against someone else who supposedly isn’t. Yes, it’s a good thing that Jesus also came to forgive it, so that we might begin to live a new way, a way of peace that isn’t built on our brand of being religious.
Oh, it’s not easy. As James seems to imply, it’s against the cycle of our natures. It’s only our Lord’s forgiveness that can help us break the cycle. As I move into transition to another call (two-thirds interim at nearby Zion), I’ve been looking back a bit over our ministry at Emmaus these past seven years. And this is one of the signs of grace that I would point to. I came here after the removal of a pastor for sexual misconduct. It’s a situation ripe for gossip, accusation, and scapegoating. With that kind of dysfunction at the heart of the community, it is so easy to fall into bad patterns of communication based around gossip. And it doesn’t just end when the pastor is removed. The only thing that can break the cycle is to name the problem clearly — not just as someone else’s sin but as our proneness to being scandalized by it and to thus stumble, too — and so to stand in need of the Lord’s forgiveness. As I look back over the past seven years, I think we have graciously received our Lord’s forgiveness and healing quite a bit.
So as I get ready to leave Emmaus, at least as far as Sunday worship is concerned, I want to leave with words of encouragement. Gossip is a serious matter. And I think that we have taken it seriously enough to have made great strides in breaking the cycle. Let me simply finish, then, with a poignant portion of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, his clear words about the Eighth Commandment:
You shall not bear witness against your neighbor.What does this mean?
We are to fear and love God, so that we don’t tell lies about our neighbor, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light. (2)
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, September 17, 2000