What Would Jesus Undo? – Toxic Talk
September 13, 2015
Rev. Louis Timberlake
I tend to not be a very fearful individual. Heights have never bothered me. Flying? The smaller the plane, the better. Storms? I love them. Public speaking? Well, I don’t really have a choice with that one. Spiders? I think they’re kind of cool—though I have a healthy respect for them. So, there are a number of sources of fear and anxiety for some people that don’t really bother me. But, I do have one big one: I don’t do snakes. I can’t stand ‘em. I don’t know why God decided to make snakes; the world would be just fine without them.
Now, I wasn’t always this way. My mom did it to me. For those of you who love snakes, I’m sorry, I’m trying to overcome a childhood of immersive training in the fear of snakes. And, really, it’s just the venomous snakes. I’m fine with the other ones. But, I just don’t feel that something that small and inconspicuous should have that type of power. You can see a bear coming, but you may not see the snake until you step on it.
This fear was reinforced about two months ago. I was out running on a trail, one that I’ve run countless times. About a quarter of a mile in, I took a big stride over a root and realized that my foot was about four inches from a big copperhead. He was as surprised as I was, so I was able to get out of the way before he could react. I was shaking at that point, but thought, “Well, I’ve met my snake quota for the run.” So, I kept going. Half a mile later, I stopped two feet short of another copperhead. I don’t know what was going on that day, whether it was something to do with weather or barometric pressure, but it was enough for me. I turned around on the spot and walked back to my car. Slowly. And saw a big black racer on the way out. The black snake was fine, but I don’t do copperheads. Something that small should not have that much power.
James says that our tongues are the same way. Our words have tremendous power. Language, a product of our complex brains, is one of the traits, along with opposable thumbs and walking on two legs, that has caused humans to be such a dominant species. Words are powerful. But, since they’re a part of our everyday lives, we tend to forget their power. We use them without thinking. Yet, as James tells us, when we don’t acknowledge and respect the power of our words, there is great potential for harm. It’s like giving a toddler a hammer—something bad is bound to happen.
When used wisely, the power of words is amazing. Think about the impact of carefully crafted words.
- “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
- “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
- “Give me liberty or give me death.”
- “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
- “I have a dream.”
Words are powerful. At the center of major events in human history, we have words. Words that influence for good or for evil. A great speech can be the tipping point that leads to freedom for millions of people. A speech can just as easily unleash genocide.
In our daily lives, words matter. In high school, I went to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes leadership camp. At one point, I was in a small group with some other students and we were preparing something to share with the larger group. There was a girl in the group that we had chosen to share on behalf of our group, but she was really nervous. I was trying to be encouraging, so I told her, “I believe in you. You can do it.” I meant it, but it was really an offhand statement. But, I learned afterwards that it had a huge impact on her. No one had ever told her that they believed in her. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but my words were more powerful than I realized.
Words can also ruin lives. Think about the stories of self-harm and suicide that we’ve seen among teenagers. So often, these events seem to be triggered by hurtful comments from peers or posts on social media that make someone feel like they aren’t loved or valued.
Let’s pause here for a moment. For some of you, if this is the only part of the sermon you hear, that’s ok. This past week was National Suicide Prevention week. If you have not taken time lately to review some of the warning signs that someone is considering self-harm or suicide, please take a few minutes to do so. You might save a life. There are many great organizations out there that help prevent suicide. One is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Their website is afsp.org.
Also, if you are someone that feels overwhelmed, hopeless, like there is no way out: Tell someone. A parent, a friend, a pastor, a guidance counselor. Don’t struggle alone. Let people who love you help. There is always hope. You are loved. By God. By others. Don’t ever feel like you have to walk that road alone.
Teenagers and young adults, we need to be mindful and uplifting with our words, particularly on social media. Our words matter. We have the choice to build people up or to tear them down. The right choice is not always the easy choice. It’s easy to join others in teasing; it’s hard to stand up for someone. It’s easy to put someone down to elevate yourself; it’s hard to remember that we are all people of tremendous value and that we all have our insecurities. Our words matter. They are powerful.
Words shape our reality. The question is, what kind of reality are we shaping? Is it a good and holy reality? Or is it a destructive and toxic reality? In reading this passage, I cannot help but think of the presidential election next year. I’m sure you’ve seen the coverage; you can’t avoid it. And none of it is positive, none of it is hopeful. There is very little talk about how we can bring the country together, about how we can work together to solve some of our problems, about how we can create opportunities for all types of people. Our national conversation around politics is toxic.
That’s part of the appeal of people like Stephen Colbert. He has made a living using humor to highlight the toxicity in our culture. Now, of course, he is an entertainer. His job is to entertain. But, it serves another purpose. By using humor to highlight the toxicity in our culture, he forces us to face our problems. There’s an element of truth to his humor that resonates with that part of us that looks around our nation, our world, and thinks, “This is not right. Something is wrong.” The first step in dealing with any problem is recognizing that there is a problem.
The question for us is, in the face of the toxicity in our world, how do we respond? How do we respond to things that are toxic, that shape our reality in destructive ways. Well, think back to the snakes. If you are bitten by a venomous snake and the toxins are beyond what your body can handle on its own, what do you do? You administer antitoxins. You don’t fight a toxin with a toxin; you fight it with an antitoxin. You fight it with something that works in a wholly different way. The James passage compares the tongue to a fire. What happens when you add fire to fire? You get more fire. You don’t fight fire with fire, you fight it with water, dirt, something that will neutralize it.
So, how do we respond to the toxicity in the world? Not with more toxicity, but with an antitoxin. And at the core of our faith is the belief that love is the antitoxin.
Proverbs 10:12 - Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.
1 Peter 4:8 - Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.
1 Corinthians 13:7 - (Love) bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love is the antitoxin. When we are faced with all kinds of toxicity, the only solution is love. And not love in the Hollywood sense. Not love in the teenage hormonal sense. But the deep, abiding love of God. It is a courageous love, a sacrificial love, a selfless love. It is a perfect love and only that perfect love can neutralize the toxins in our world. Only that love can heal us of hatred, fear, greed, pride, and everything else that infects our hearts and our world.
I love that video we watched. I don’t know if you heard it, but the videographer asked Milli at the beginning “What is your strategy for love?” Her response is just awesome. She looks a little confused, like the question doesn’t make sense. “What is your strategy for love?” She finally says, “I don’t have it written down, it’s written on me.” How incredible is that? “It’s written on me.” She says that she wants people to see that love in everything she does, in how she carries herself, in how she treats others. And she says that she wants people to know that the source of that love is her relationship with God, the source of perfect love.
What does it look like for love to be written on you? On us? What would it look like for people to look at us, in how we act, how we use our words, how we treat others, and see love. To see the perfect love of God reflected in us. To see something joyful, courageous, sacrificial, selfless. To see something that can’t be written down, that can’t be defined or mapped out, but is simply written on our hearts.
In Jesus, we see perfect love. In Jesus, we see what it looks like to fight the toxicity in the world. And we are invited to join in that work. The work of being antitoxins, of countering the toxicity in our world with the only effective treatment—love.
But, you know, the first thing we have to do is deal with the toxicity in our own lives. James talks about the tongue being a rudder that directs a ship. If our rudder isn’t pointed in the right direction, then the rest of us isn’t as well. It is so easy to for us to mirror the toxicity in our culture. I’m certainly guilty of it. I can be a pretty cynical person. I have a tendency to look at problems in our world and in the church and to respond with criticism, rather than love. Here is my public confession. I, as much as anyone, am guilty of toxic talk. But God invites me and all of us into something greater. God invites us to be transformed, so that our rudders are pointed in the right direction. So that we can be antitoxins, so that we can counter the toxicity in our world with the perfect love of God. The question is, will we allow God to write that message of love on our hearts, so that others can’t help but see it? Will we let go of things that are toxic, so that God can replace them with things that are good and loving? Will we submit to be transformed, so that we can be a part of the transformation of the world?
- What are some specific examples of toxic talk that you see?
- What are the biggest toxins in our world?
- How have you experienced the power of words (good or bad)? Tell a story, if possible.
- How have you witnessed love as an antitoxin?
- What does it mean for love to be written on you?
- Confession is difficult, but an ancient Christian practice and an important part of transformation. Confess a toxin in your life that needs to be neutralized by the love of God, so that you can better reflect that love in your life.