Precise Words

Sermon by Bill Chadwick | February 16, 2020

I have a good friend who says she cannot remember embarrassing things she has done or said. Friends, I would give $10,000 on the spot to be in that situation! Oh, I have some doozies that sometimes keep me awake at night and they happened 20 or 40 years ago. I have said some dumb, hurtful things! Not on purpose, just ‘cause I’m an idiot.

The biblical book of James is a very practical book. At the same time, it’s the only book of the Bible that never mentions God. (For that reason, Luther wanted it removed from the canon, the official books of the Bible. But it wasn’t.)

James talks about the power of the tongue, particularly the power of the tongue to hurt people. We pick it up at the third chapter and the fourth verse:…look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

I think James is primarily talking about a gossiping tongue, but there is a lot of unintentional hurt caused by our tongues through untidy thinking. We looked at some of these last week: “Everything happens for a reason,” calling some tragedy “God’s will,” “There but for the grace of God go I,” etc. I got good feedback on that sermon, so I decided to continue the thinking along those lines.

A couple years ago my bride Kris and I were walking along the boardwalk in the Turkey Creek Sanctuary in SE Florida, hoping to see manatees and alligators. It’s sort of like a boardwalk through the jungle. Many of the planks in the nearly two-mile long boardwalk had inscriptions carved into them, usually just names. But there was one long inscription, across several planks. It was a memorial in honor of someone who had died at a young age and it had the person’s name and then the familiar quote, “God took him to prove that God only takes the very best.”

Seriously? Do you want to worship that God? And what does it say about those of us who haven’t been “taken” yet? I think, “Thank heavens I’m not the best!

A pastor friend of mine told about attending the funeral of a 23-year-old woman. The officiating pastor said, “God needed her as a flower in his garden in heaven.” My friend said, “I was so horrified by that statement that I was dumbstruck and couldn’t move. But I have regretted ever since that I didn’t stand up right there during the funeral and take issue with that blasphemy.”

There is nothing in scripture that would indicate that God plucks young people to be flowers in God’s garden. Good grief! God needs that 23-year-old more than her family and friends do?

Here’s another one that fries my potatoes: “God helps those who help themselves.” Tell me what book of the Bible that is found in. Anyone? Right. It’s not. It’s not from the Bible, it’s from Ben Franklin. It’s not at all a biblical sentiment. It is an American “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” sort of sentiment. Reading of scripture would lead us to conclude just the opposite: that “God helps those who cannot help themselves.” Or “God calls you and me to help those who cannot help themselves.”

Another phrase that just steams my mussels: “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” A young mother whose three-year-old daughter contracted an illness and died, was told this a number of times by well-meaning friends trying to comfort her. “You’ll be okay. God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”

Her perfectly logical conclusion was to think, “If I weren’t so strong my daughter would still be alive. (Harold Kushner in When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”)

Actually, I believe it is a true statement that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. In his very helpful book, Where Is God When It Hurts, (the book whose name I couldn’t think of last week), Philip Yancey tells of a psychiatrist who was in a car crash that killed his mother-in-law, his wife and his daughter. Only he and his son survived. The psychiatrist suffered enough brain trauma that he was unable to work anymore. An interviewer asked if he was mad at God.

The psychiatrist answered, “’Mad at God?’ No. Why would I be mad at God? God didn’t cause this crash. Do not confuse God with life.”

I’ve never forgotten that line: “Don’t confuse God with life.”

God does not give us more than we can handle, but LIFE sometimes does! It just does…sometimes gives us more than we can handle. Yet often we keep trying to muster up the strength to handle it on our own. While all along we have this wonderful church community, the WPC family, eager to help us bear our troubles.

And we have the promise of Jesus in Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

As I mentioned two weeks ago, William Sloane Coffin often noted that “God is short on protection, but long on companionship.”

Assertions like these: “God takes the very best” or “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle (presuming that these horrible things are from God)” are not only wrong, they are violations of one of the Ten Commandments. Do you know which one? Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”

When I was young, I was taught by my parents and Sunday School teachers that that meant I should not swear. No “G—d–” or “J—C—.” Right? But in seminary I learned that it was a much more potent commandment than using the name of God in a profane way. Rather, said my Bible professors, its core meaning is that we are not to attribute to God things that clearly do not belong to God, like God “taking” our loved ones at an early age.

Here’s a good example of taking the Lord’s name in vain: saying that “AIDS is God’s judgment on gays.” Have you heard that? Let’s think about that. If that were the case, that AIDS is God’s judgment, it would mean that while God might hate gay men, God really loves gay women, because they have a lower incidence of AIDS not only of gay men, but of straight men and women. To say “AIDS is God’s judgment on gays” is a statement that makes no sense, logically or theologically.

Let me finish with a story that happened back in 1983. In his day, Dad was a large and powerful man, able to yank three gunnysacks of sweet corn at a time off the ground, then swing them around onto his back. He carried the sacks—sixty-five ears in each—a hundred yards to the waiting truck, the muddy ground threatening to suck his boots right off his feet with every step.

But by his sixties, eroding hip sockets had slowed Dad down considerably. For whatever reason, he put surgery off for years. Finally, he had his right hip replaced. The operation went well; recovery was quick, and he was soon back on the farm, albeit still limping because of the left hip.

A year later, he went in for surgery to replace that joint. Based on his first surgery, we expected Dad to breeze through this one as well. I saw him right after the operation, and things looked to be going fine.

A few days passed. Then early one afternoon, I was in my church study working on my sermon when I got a phone call from my older brother, Cal.

“Dad’s not recovering as well this time around,” he said.

“Really?” I replied. “He seemed pretty good when I saw him.”

“He’s in a lot of pain,” said Cal. “If you have time, could you go see him, please?”

I hadn’t been there for a few days. I knew that my siblings, who all lived closer to the hospital than I did, had been checking in on him regularly. And, of course, he’d already been through one of these operations. I said of course and asked if I should come right away.

“No, no giant hurry,” Cal said. “When it’s convenient.”

I told him I would come the following evening and we hung up. But when I tried to get back to my sermon, I found I couldn’t concentrate.

“I think I’ll go now,” I said to myself. “Why not, if it would make me and him feel better?” But still I wasn’t really that concerned; Cal had said it wasn’t urgent.

I felt differently as soon as I turned into Dad’s hospital room. His face was gray and racked with pain, and my mother, sitting next to him holding his hand, was visibly distraught. My insides turned to stone. I couldn’t breathe.

I had done a fair amount of hospital calling by then, and I processed immediately what I was walking into: I knew what people looked like when they were getting better, and I knew what people looked like when they weren’t.

But this was not a parishioner, this was my dad. The fear that was already filling the room intensified as I stepped in and added my own. As a pastor, I was used to parishioners dying. This was an entirely different experience.

After just a few moments of terror-stricken small talk, I suggested, “How about if we pray?” Now, other than grace at meals, we had never done a lot of—any?—praying together as a family. But both of my parents nodded eagerly. So I stood on one side of the bed, Mom sat on the other, and the three of us held hands and shut our eyes. I took a deep breath and then prayed something like this: “Dear Jesus”—in seminary we were taught to pray to God, not Jesus, but when I’m in trouble, I go straight to my main man—“Dear Jesus, you made the deaf to hear, the blind to see, the lame to walk . . . Please heal Dad . . .”

And into that hospital room came a palpable presence of peace. Jesus was there. It was exactly as if there were four of us now, holding hands. I actually peeked to see if that were literally true. It wasn’t, but Jesus was there.

I took a deep breath and fully opened my eyes. The lines of pain had dissolved from Dad’s face and some color had returned to it. The hopelessness on Mom’s face had been replaced with an expression of calm, of trust.

From that moment, Dad started getting better.

But that’s not the point of this story. Dad died of something else a few years later. The point is this: it no longer mattered if Dad got better or not.

Because Jesus was there.

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