“The Gospel According to Smokey the Bear”

October 21, 2012


Isaiah 59:9-15

James 3:1-12


We are in the height of an election season that seems as though it has been going on forever. It’s not that we’ve grown completely weary, however. Around here in recent weeks the presidential and vice presidential debates led to meetings being cancelled or meeting times being changed, as you might expect in a congregation such as ours. I understand that even some who voted early still tuned in to watch.

Still, I think there might be a sigh of relief when the debates come to a close tomorrow night and we move into the final weeks of the campaign.

The campaign and the debates have lead to a lot of discussion about truth and lies. We rightly want to know if we’re being told the truth by those who seek the trust of public office. In one debate Vice President Biden delicately called some statements by Congressman Ryan, “malarkey.” Fact checking is all the rage. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker gives dubious statements between one and four “Pinocchios.” Politifact.com offers a “Truth-o-Meter” app for your phone and rates statements by politicians on a scale ranging from “True” to a “Pants on Fire” lie.

The ancient prophet, Isaiah, speaks to our fear: “Truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking.”

Aleksander Kwasniewski, Poland’s president for ten years from 1995 to 2005 once asked openly if it was possible for a politician to be honest at all, realizing that “When voters write off politicians as dishonest, anti-democratic movements thrive.” Honesty and the trust that it engenders, then, are essential for a liberal democracy.

In the first part of the letter of James, the author focuses on the hypocrisy that runs through the church—and really throughout all of life and society. It is a devastating indictment—unfortunately as valid today as 2000 years ago. We give anger free reign. We say we have faith, but we don’t care for those in need. We favor one group over another. It is hypocrisy when our speech and our actions don’t go together. (And, yet, you know, when someone tells me that the church is full of hypocrites, I always say “Yes, but we’re willing to scoot over and make room for one more.”)

Then James turns to focus on our speech: what we say—and what that says about us.

You go to a doctor and she tells you: “Open your mouth, and stick out your tongue.” The early church leader, Justin, said, “By examining the tongue, physicians find out the diseases of the body; and philosophers, the diseases of the mind and heart.”

The issue for James is not that we make errors in the way we put words together or that we stumble over our sentences. He’s not worried about gaffs and misstatements. James is concerned with how and what we communicate.

Certainly we know the destructive power of speech.

Perhaps you have heard the story of the man who went to his rabbi with a question.

“Rabbi,” he said, “I understand almost all of the law. I understand the commandment not to kill. I understand the commandment not to steal. What I don’t understand is why there is a commandment against slandering the neighbor.”

The rabbi looked at the man and said, “I will give you an answer, but first I have a task for you. I would like you to gather a sack of feathers and place a single feather on the doorstep of each house in the village. When you have finished, return for your answer.”

So the man did as he was told and soon returned to the rabbi to announce that the task was complete. “Now, Rabbi, give m the answer to my question. Why is it wrong to slander my neighbor?”

“Oh. One more thing,” the rabbi said. “I want you to go back and collect all the feathers before I give you the answer.”

“But,” the man protested, “the feathers will be impossible to collect. The wind will have blown them away.”

“So it is with what we say about our neighbors,” the rabbi said. “It can never be retrieved. Our words are like feathers in the wind.”[1]

Once a lie is out in the public square, it takes on a life of its own.

Consider a now familiar example:

One of the last conversations I had before I left Connecticut five years ago was with a church member who had heard—and believed—that Barack Obama was a Muslim. “No,” I said, “He is a baptized Christian,” baptized, of course, in a United Church of Christ congregation. And yet a poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life last summer showed that “Three-and-a-half years into the presidency of Barack Obama, 17 percent of registered voters still believe that he is a Muslim…. The poll showed a striking increase in Republicans and conservative Republicans who say that the president is Muslim, with 30 percent of Republicans and 34 percent of conservative Republicans sa[ying] so.”[2]

Pants on fire, indeed. Or as James reminds us: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” When we use speech to deceive, we light a fire that spreads quickly and broadly.

We know the destructive power of words.

James, of course, is no moralist. He’s concerned about what we say, but that concern exists in a context of grace. After all, James is quite clear: “All of us make many mistakes.” Yes, he was including you in that statement.

And me.

The perfectionist will try—and try quite hard—to avoid this reality. Some will check their behavior almost obsessively. Others will try to be sure that nothing they do could be faulted by anyone. Good luck.

And if your tongue is getting you in trouble, you might try the advice of Abraham Lincoln, who said: “I would rather remain silent and be thought a fool than speak out and remove all doubt.”

Yes, when we “stick out our tongue”—when we speak, we reveal much about the state of our hearts, our souls. And the reality is that we all make mistakes in many ways.

A living faith calls our speaking and our words into account.

Which is where Smokey the Bear comes in. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!”

Only you can prevent forest fires.

Only we can make sure that what comes forth from our mouths will give life, not death, blessing, not curse.

And only we can insist on honesty on the part of those who seek to serve the public good by leading in government. Each one of us individually and all of us together are crucial to this effort. So Aleksander Kwasniewski reminds us that “Political honesty—and honest politicians—are more likely to take root in a society marked by a culture of tolerance, solidarity, and the equal enjoyment of individual rights.[3]

What I hear in that description—a culture of tolerance, solidarity, and the equal enjoyment of individual rights—is a part of the picture of what we seek to develop in this congregation. Such a community leads to deeper honesty. And if we can forge such a community here, we can be what we are called to be: a light to the world, leaven to the loaf. That is, we as a congregation can encourage greater tolerance, solidarity, and equal rights in our city, state, and nation. From this community we can act in ways that encourage a greater political honesty in the wider world.

It’s good news: only we can prevent forest fires. Only we can bring about the political honesty that is needed for a liberal democracy to flourish.

The problem of the tongue is a heart problem. Can we, who worship God with our hearts and voices, find ways to affirm, encourage and build up one another with our words as well?

It’s not a matter of being polite or politic—you know, calling me “folically challenged” instead of bald. But we need to listen to our speech and the things that mar it day by day: innuendo, spite, put downs, self-obsession. We need to find speech that empowers and gives life—and build a community that encourages such speech in others.

A favorite picture of mine shows a forest in the western United States some time after it was devastated by a wildfire. The charred remains of tree stumps stand starkly against the open sky. The ground is still, for the most part, black. It is a picture of destruction.

But here and there you can see patches of green: blades of grass, seedlings that are showing pine needles. After devastation, new life is coming back as nature renews itself.

This is a picture of hope, especially when we hear those words from the letter of James: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” This is a picture of hope at the height of an election season that, like all election seasons, has had its share of, well, malarkey. This is a picture of hope in all the seasons of our life, in which honesty will help us build the kind of communities that bring more life, bring blessing to all.

Our words are very precious and very powerful. The more we use them to good ends, the more each one of us—and all of us—will flourish.