Sermon – June 22, 2014

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

June 22, 2014

“Watch What You Say”

Luke 6:37-45

I read something that really amazed me. Did you know that twice Abraham Lincoln’s coffin was pried open? The first occasion was in 1887, 22 long years after his assassination. Why did it happen? It was certainly not to determine if he had really died from a bullet from John Wilkes Booth’s gun.

Then why? It was all because a rumor was sweeping the country that his coffin was empty. A select group of witnesses observed that the rumor was completely untrue, then watched as the coffin was resealed with lead.

A second time, 14 years later, his coffin was opened again, this time to be viewed by even more witnesses. Why a second time? Believe it or not, for the same grim purpose. Rumors of the same nature had again implanted doubts in the public’s mind. The pressure had mounted to such an extent that the same grotesque ceremony had to be carried out again. In spite of the strong protests of Lincoln’s son, Robert, the body was exposed a second time.

Officials felt that the rumors should be permanently laid to rest along with the Civil War president. So finally, Lincoln’s body was securely embedded in a crypt at Springfield, Illinois.

When I first read that story I was incredulous. But then the more I thought about it, the less surprised I became. A little cynicism began to creep in and I thought, “Well it figures. Some things never change.” We’re probably aware of similarly outrageous stories today. If we really think about it, we could come up with dozens of other examples of how rumor and gossip have gotten out of hand.

There’s plenty of gossip to keep up with – there’s entertainment news shows, celebrity magazines, and internet postings. Think about how many times you’ve heard the expressions – “have you heard”, “people say”, “I’ve heard it said”. We discover that some people will believe anything if it is whispered to them.

Why do we have this compulsion to listen to gossip? Maybe it’s because we want to be “in the know”. No one wants to be left out, uninformed, the last to find out. It seems like we all have something of a weak spot for getting inside information, details about what’s going on with someone we know. Maybe some people have a desire to “get some dirt” on others. It confirms their suspicions about them. The better the person is admired, the more fun it is to find out something bad about them.

One of my favorite authors, John Powell, writes that gossiping can also be a salve for sensitive guilty feelings. We like to recite the misdeeds of others so we won’t have to feel so badly about our own misdeeds. After reading the trash said about others, our own petty offenses don’t seem to be such terrible evils after all.

What about the impact of gossip and rumor in the church? How does it affect our life together as a congregation? Can you imagine what it would be like if we had a gossip column in our church newsletter? The impact of gossip and rumor on the Christian church can be devastating, and there’s no need for a gossip column when there is an efficient network in place called word of mouth.

Our sermon text comes from Luke’s version of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. There are two words Jesus uses which speak to the subject of gossip and rumor. The first paragraph talks about judging. When Jesus uses the word “judge” we have to realize it has several layers of meaning. Jesus is taking aim at the destructive nature of judging and warning us not to have a judgmental spirit. We can and should exercise judgment in forming an opinion and making a determination, but we do not have the right to condemn. We are not permitted to have the last word on someone’s life. To say the last word is to condemn not just behavior, but the person. That right belongs only to God who judges perfectly.

Also Jesus says that judgmental people will experience the same damning criticism they dish out. This is a strong argument for generosity and mercy. What goes around comes around. The measure you give will be the measure you get. I think that the people Jesus has in mind are those who relish the opportunity to be critical of others, who criticize others with a condemning and unforgiving spirit.

In the second paragraph Jesus uses the word “hypocrite”. Jesus started with – Don’t judge. Now he says – Judge yourself. Our judging should always begin with and concentrate on ourselves. And Jesus exposes our hypocrisy with a funny illustration. He draws a ridiculous picture of someone with a log stuck in his eye who is trying to take a speck of sawdust out of someone else’s eye. When Jesus applies the caricature to us, we might not appreciate the joke. Humans have the tendency to exaggerate the faults of others and to minimize our own faults.

Jesus does not stop with saying, “First take the log out of your own eye.” He continues on to say, “And then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” The point of the illustration is that Jesus desires the removal of both. Jesus is not simply forbidding criticism of others, but rather the criticism of others where there is no comparable criticism of ourselves. What is forbidden is not the correction of others, but rather the correction of others when we have not first corrected ourselves.

Jesus does not permit us to apply a standard to others which we refuse to apply to ourselves. That is exactly the meaning of hypocrisy. It is being two-faced. Instead, the person who refrains from judging remembers his own vulnerabilities. We remember that too often we are only a short step from disaster. And we can humbly say – There but for the grace of God am I.

In the last paragraph Jesus connects the mouth to the heart. He said: “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”

The Bible has a lot to say about the words we speak. In the book of Proverbs, the words – tongue, mouth, lips, and words, are mentioned over 150 times. Proverbs 15 says – “The tongue of the wise dispenses knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.” James uses the same style of writing as the wisdom literature of Proverbs. What James says in chapter one sounds like a proverb: “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”

In Garrison Keillor’s book, “Lake Woebegon Days,” he has this to say about the criticism he received from his father: “For fear of what it might do to me, you never paid a compliment, and when other people did, you beat it away from me with a stick … You trained me so well,” Keillor says, “I now perform this service for myself. I deflect every kind word directed to me, and my denials are much more extravagant than the praise … I do this under the impression that it is humility, a becoming quality in a person. Actually I am starved for a good word, but after the long drought of my youth, no word is quite good enough.”

There’s a little Sunday School song for children we should remember.
It goes:
O be careful, little eyes, what you see;
O be careful, little eyes, what you see;
For the Father up above is looking down in love;
O be careful, little eyes, what you see.

Then the next verse goes on: “O be careful, little ears, what you hear …” Then the next verse: “O be careful, little feet, where you go …” And finally: “O be careful, little tongue, what you say …”

It’s like the parental admonition to children that some words are not to be used in polite company. However, the song reminds us that as Christians we are always in polite company. We live our lives in the presence of God. And beyond the negative inference of the song that there are some things we shouldn’t say, there is also the positive idea that there are some things we ought to say. Because our Father up above is looking down in love there are times when we must speak up. Sometimes there is a word which needs to be said and you are the one in a position to say it.

Jesus said – “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit.” In other words, what is on the outside, the fruit, is determined by what is on the inside. The root problem is not the mouth, but the heart. Jesus said: “It is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” The conversion of our tongues will require the conversion of our hearts.

The only way to control our mouths and our hearts is to give up control of our lives to Jesus Christ. Working in our own strength, in our own will, we are bound to fail. It is the work of the Spirit of Christ living in the hearts of those who trust in him that can make our tongues and our lives reflect the glory of God.

And how can we deal with the specter of gossip and rumor when it confronts us? Chuck Swindoll, a well-known author, has four suggestions on how to deal with gossip and rumors and I think they’re worth passing on.

Number one – Identify sources by name. If someone is determined to share information that is damaging or hurtful, request that the source be specifically stated.

Number two – Support evidence with facts. In other words, don’t accept hearsay. Refuse to listen unless the truth is being communicated.

Number three – Ask the person, “May I quote you?” It’s remarkable how quickly a gossiper will backpedal when asked to be quoted.

And Number four – Openly admit, “I don’t appreciate hearing that.” Although that might be for the bold, sometimes the direct approach is what is really needed.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans he urges us to – “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another.” If we rejoice when others rejoice, then we will not be jealous of them or have the need to compete with them. Their good news becomes our good news.

And if we weep with those who weep, then we will not need to gloat over their mistakes and misfortunes. If what hurts them, hurts us, then it will not be fuel for idle talk. And the end result is that we will live in harmony with one another.

God help us to be careful what we say.

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