A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 13, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: James 3:1-6 and Mark 8:27-38
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

President Jimmy Carter and his mother, Miss Lillian Carter

There is a story I remember from when Jimmy Carter was first running for president. This is almost 40 years ago, so I have no idea if I have the facts correct, but this is how I remember the story. Miss Lillian, Jimmy’s mother, was scheduled to be interviewed by a network reporter, I think it might have been Connie Chung (and I’ll pretend that it was). So Connie showed up a Miss Lillian’s home, and Miss Lillian opened the door and welcomed Connie saying something like, “Welcome, I’m so glad you’re here.”

Now, someone had claimed that someone had never lied – I think it was that Jimmy claimed that his mother had never lied, or that Miss Lillian claimed that Jimmy had never lied. In any event, Connie asked Miss Lillian if that was true. Was it true that whoever it was had never lied? “It’s true,” Miss Lillian replied. “Well, maybe a little white lie every now and again.”

Thinking that a lie is a lie, Connie challenged Miss Lillian: “A little white lie? What is that?”

“Well, do you remember when you arrived and I told you, ‘I’m so glad you’re here’?”

During my vacation I had the opportunity to do some reading and to listen to some audiobooks and I drove to and from Washington. One of the books was The Four Agreements. I have friends who say it is a powerful book, one that I should read, so I put it on my list. (Have any of your read it?) Claiming to base his writing in ancient Toltec wisdom, the author has identified “four agreements” that, if adopted, will reframe our view of the world and lead us to a life of joy and personal freedom.

The first of these four agreements is, “Be Impeccable with your Word.” This is a call to speak with integrity, to say only what you mean. To adopt this agreement is to avoid using our words to speak against ourselves or to gossip about others, to use the power of our words in the direction of truth and love.

This agreement says that Miss Lillian’s “little white lies” are a problem. But I can’t imagine how the interview would have gone if she had greeted the reporter with, “Well, I don’t want to do this, but I’m told it will help my son, so you might as well come in.” And I can’t help but think of the ending of the movie Mr. Holmes (spoiler alert) where the great fictional detective, who had based his career on facts and logic and deductive reasoning, learns the value of lying to help someone’s emotional wounds heal.

I can’t help wondering, is lying ever good? I certainly don’t want political leaders lying to me. But isn’t a lie sometimes the less painful route? Or does a lie, no matter how well meaning, create a falsehood that ultimately is hurtful simply because it is a falsehood?

“In a sense, social constructivists are correct about words creating reality,” writes John A. Johnson in Psychology Today. “We act on what we tell ourselves is real. Albert Ellis [the American psychologist who developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy] encouraged us to screen our self-talk for negative, irrational chatter. So, what kinds of words to you use when you describe reality? Do you lie and say hurtful and poisonous things about yourself and others? Not healthy! To be impeccable with your word is to be truthful and to say things that have a positive influence on yourself and others.”[1]

This seems to me to be where the author of the letter we call “James” seems to be going. “We all make mistakes often, but those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity. Like a bridled horse, they can control themselves entirely.” The author of this epistle is saying that when we have control over our words, we won’t lead ourselves astray.

The Rim Fire, 2013

The author uses another analogy: the rudder on a ship. The rudder does not need to be very large (and often is no bigger than an oar) to steer a ship. In like manner, our tongues steer our bodies. And then a third analogy, one we know all to well in California this summer: “a small flame can set a whole forest on fire.” Carelessness with campfires can start wildfires. Carelessness with our words can set lives ablaze.

The author focuses on the potential negative consequences of our words, but I hear in this reading the potential positive consequences of our words. Just as a large ship can be steered by a small rudder toward the sandbar, it can also be steered away into the deep waters. A life need not be set ablaze with the flames of hell by our words. It can be set ablaze with compassion and service and justice and love.

In our gospel lesson, Peter’s words start to steer him toward deep waters, and then they get him in trouble. “The geographic setting of this passage is very significant.”[2] Jesus and his disciples are in the villages near Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was a town built by the occupying Roman Empire and became an administrative capital for the political powers.[3] Here, in the shadow of Roman power, Jesus asks his disciples who the people say he is. They reply that people say he is one of the prophets (apparently a prophet come back to life).

Then he asks them who they say he is. Peter says that he is “the anointed,” which in Greek is “the Christ.” This is the first time that any human voice has called Jesus the Christ in Mark’s gospel. Peter’s words are profound and seem to be leading him to something deep.

Jesus shares what it means to be the Christ: the religious and political elites will reject him and kill him. Peter will have not of it and, as the Common English Bible translates the Greek, “scolds” Jesus – and his words steer him toward the sandbar. Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me Satan.”

Jesuit theologian Carlos Bravo points out, “‘Jesus remonstrates [Peter] in the harshest words he ever uses against anyone,’ and in doing so, demonstrates that ‘Peter’s proposal is a temptation for him.’ Bravo’s observation suggests that Jesus still struggles profoundly with the consequences of his choices; by confirming his unwavering commitment to the God of mercy, whose love and loyalty to the poor is good news to the outcast but threatens those in power, Jesus also confirms his violent fate at the hands of the church and the state.”[4]

“Only through this path can he show that God’s love for us is real and triumphant over death. Over and over Jesus must explain kingdom values, as opposed to human values that prioritize power, status, and exclusivity. He must insist that the mission is not to be served, but to serve; not to be first, but to be last.”[5]

“All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me,” Jesus said. “Miguel D’Escoto of Nicaragua once observed, ‘I don’t think we Christians have understood what carrying the cross means: the path of baptism. We are not carrying the cross when we are poor or sick, or suffering small everyday things. They are all part of life. The cross comes when we try to change things. That is how it came for Jesus.’”[6]

I think D’Escoto is right, that the cross comes when we try to change things – and not just when we try to change big things out there, political things. The cross can come when we try to change things in here, inside our being. My friend Thom Longino says, “For me, [taking up our cross] is not about being seen in the public square, suffering the slings and arrows for our faith. Rather, it means we all have ongoing, shadow work to do. Spirituality is about looking at ourselves honestly, to be aware of where the outflowing of love and mercy is blocked in ourselves. Taking up our cross daily means a daily, personal inventory of where we need to grow in our various relationships: with self, others, and God.”[7] Perhaps another way to put that is to be completely honest with ourselves, to be impeccable with our words.

For me, it’s both/and. For me, taking up the cross is about changing things out there and in here. For me, taking up the cross is about making a difference. And James says that we can make a difference. Our words make a difference because our words lead us to actions. They can lead us to actions that set a forest ablaze or actions that set a heart ablaze. The difference between the two fires is whether our words lead us to take up our cross and follow Jesus.


[1] John A. Johnson, PhD, “Agreeing with The Four Agreements,” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cui-bono/201012/agreeing-the-four-agreements (posted 29 December 2010; accessed 12 September 2015).

[2] Kathryn Matthews, “Sermon Seeds September 13, 2015,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_september_13_2015 (accessed 12 September 2015).

[3] “Caesarea Philippi,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caesarea_Philippi (accessed 12 September 2015).

[4] Michaela Bruzzese, “An Upside-Down Reign,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/upside-down-reign (accessed 11 August 2015).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Peter B. Price, “Getting it Straight,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/getting-it-straight (accessed 11 August 2015).

[7] Thom Longino, status update on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/junkersophia, dated 8 September 2015, 3:20 p.m.