Sermon for Police Remembrance Sunday 2015: Watch your tongues!

Sermon for Police Remembrance Sunday 2015
Williamstown Uniting Church

James 3:1-4:3, 7-8a

One of the ‘extra’ things I do as a minister, one of the ways in which this congregation shares me with the wider community, is being a chaplain with the Victorian Council of Churches Emergencies Ministry. Chaplains get called out by the Department of Human Services in cases of natural or manmade disasters to provide psychological first aid to people affected. One of the reasons I have such respect for police officers, and fire-fighters and paramedics and SES volunteers, is that chaplains turn up as soon as possible during or after a disaster, but only when we’re going to be safe. In fact, that’s one of our best lines with traumatised people – they can be sure that they’re safe now because if the situation wasn’t safe chaplains wouldn’t be there. So I have the greatest respect for people who respond to disasters before it’s safe.

Female police officer at the 1972 Moomba Parade

A couple of months ago I was at a training session about how people respond to trauma, and I heard a story that has stayed with me. The psychiatrist was talking about a gathering he’d had with farmers after a whole series of natural disasters – drought, fire and flood. He explained to them that in disasters the body gets flooded with adrenalin and that if that adrenalin isn’t used to fight or flight it needs to be released somehow, for example by ‘the shakes’. One of the farmers told a story of escaping from a bushfire as a boy. After his family was safe he found himself shaking – and his father told him to stop being a coward. Ever since, this man, now well into middle-age, had thought that he was a coward because his father had told him he was. It was only when physical responses to extreme stress were explained to him that he knew that he hadn’t been cowardly.

That story has stayed with me because it’s a perfect example of how much damage words can do. We now know that the saying ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ is completely and utterly wrong. Words that lodge in our hearts and souls can hurt us in ways that go far beyond the effects of physical injuries. We know that now – and the writer of the Letter of James seemed to know that some two thousand years’ ago. As he wrote: ‘The tongue is like a spark … our tongues get out of control. They are restless and evil and always spreading deadly poison.’

The Letter of James is the only book of Wisdom in the New Testament. Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Jews all wrote wisdom literature, books of wise sayings that told people how to live, and the Letter of James fits neatly into this genre. It’s a short book, only 108 verses long, and it contains 54 imperatives, that is, verses that tell us to do something. This might be why it hasn’t been very popular among Christians. The church doesn’t like being told what to do.

The Letter only just made it into the Bible. It isn’t mentioned in the oldest list we have of the books of the New Testament, from 170 AD. The church historian, Eusebius, described it as ‘contested’ in the fourth century, and later in the same century Jerome said that it had been accepted by the church only ‘little by little’. During the reformation Martin Luther also questioned the Letter’s status as canonical. This is primarily because James sounds as much like a philosopher as a Christian theologian. There are only two mentions of Jesus in the entire Letter and, as my copy of The Jewish Annotated New Testament says: ‘With [those] two references removed, the text could function as an address to synagogue communities in the Diaspora’. (p. 427)

But that doesn’t mean the Letter isn’t relevant for Christians. It made it into the Bible for a reason. The Letter of James was written to a small and embattled community surrounded by a largely hostile larger society, and it teaches Christians how to live as God’s holy people in the tension between faith and culture. The ‘dear friends’ to whom James writes are being enticed by the surrounding community to live as everyone else does, in much the same way as we are now being enticed to live purely for ourselves in a post-Christian consumerist world. James tells his dear friends: ‘let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger’ (1:19), which is good advice for any member of a multicultural, multi-faith community like Australia – or the ancient Roman Empire. But James isn’t primarily suggesting this to keep Christians safe in a hostile world. He’s telling his readers, and us, how to live as a community of faith.

According to James speaking is a Christian practice. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells his followers: ‘I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire’ (Matthew 5:22). The Apostle Paul warned the Corinthians against ‘quarrelling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder’ (2 Corinthians 12:20). In his Letter James agrees with Jesus and Paul as he meditates on the power and danger of language. Language was one of the first gifts God gave humans. But it is a gift from God that can be misused. According to James, being ‘wise’ means using language in ways that are playful and pure, as James does with all his metaphors about fires and ships and animals. His playing with language shows that it is not human speech in general that worries James. He isn’t suggesting we all take vows of silence. He is talking about the dangers of bullying, selfish, and disrespectful speech. He is pointing out that it is hypocritical to praise God and curse those made in the image of God. Two thousand years’ ago James gave great advice for the age of social media.

People like Martin Luther have accused the Letter of James of being an epistle of straw because of James’ apparent emphasis on action, rather than faith. But James isn’t valuing doing over believing. He is simply reminding us that following Jesus is a way of life, not just a theoretical construct.

Today we commemorate all the police officers who have given their lives in service to the community. Of course, we remember those who have been murdered; Blue Ribbon Day was born within days of the murders of Sergeant Gary Silk and Senior Constable Rodney Miller in 1998 when Victorians wore blue ribbons or tied them on their car aerials to show their support. But we also need to remember those police officers who have died by suicide because of the pressures of the job. In an article in The Age last year the crime reporter, John Silvester, wrote that: ‘Police figures show 23 operational members and six police public servants have taken their own lives since 1995. Seven police have killed themselves in the past 30 months.’ James’ emphasis on the danger of ‘our tongues get[ting] out of control’ has wisdom for us as we remember the police officers who have died in the line of duty, including those who have taken their own lives.

What we say is as helpful or harmful as what we do. If we tell a boy shaking after escaping a bushfire that he’s a coward, he’ll believe that for the rest of his life. If we, members of police forces and society in general, talk about Cumulative Stress Disorder, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental health issues as though they’re shameful or to be hidden, people experiencing mental illnesses will try to ignore them, hide them, or deal with them alone. On the other hand, if we all acknowledge the simple fact that mental illnesses exist, just like physical illnesses and injuries, and that there’s nothing shameful about asking for help people will, hopefully, be able to ask for that help. We’re slowly, gradually, as a society, learning to respond to mental illness in a way that I hope and pray will reduce suicides. How we talk is an important part of that.

And of course we should never ever bully or taunt or verbally abuse people – I don’t think I need to say that to anyone here. But just in case I do, let me channel the Apostle James and use an imperative: do not bully or taunt or verbally abuse people created to be like God!

In his letter James writes that true wisdom is ‘pure, friendly, gentle, sensible, kind, helpful, genuine, and sincere’. I don’t think any of us can claim to be all those things all the time, but we can all strive to be as pure, friendly, gentle, sensible, kind, helpful, genuine, and sincere as possible, knowing that we don’t need to strive alone. After all, as James wrote at the beginning of his letter: ‘If any of you need wisdom, you should ask God, and it will be given to you. God is generous and won’t correct you for asking.’ (1:5)

Today let us remember the police officers who serve this community, particularly those who have died, including those who have died as a result of suicide. And let us all commit ourselves to living with James’ true wisdom, God’s gift of wisdom from above – purity, friendliness, gentleness, sense, kindness, helpfulness, genuineness, and sincerity. In the name of the God who is always near us, just waiting for us to turn to Him. Amen.

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