Toorak Uniting Church

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Dragons watch your fire

James 3: 1 – 11
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
14 September 2003, 9:00am

We started the sermon with the story of the dragon that had trouble controlling his breathing.

Because: With dragons that is a real problem.

Why? Fiery breath causes damage – she burned down the house
– she burned down the school
– she burned down the church
– she burned down the shop
– she burned a couple of trees
– and one day even a whole forest…….
Something had to be done!

Little dragon had no idea when or why she would be breathing fire.
As far as she knew, it just happened, even when she didn’t like it or didn’t mean to.

Who has an idea when and why the little dragon would be breathing fire?

She had burned Johnny dragon’s shirt when she got angry with him one day.
She burned the shop down when mummy wouldn’t buy any sweets for her.
She’d burned the house on her Birthday when she got very excited running around and being silly.
She’d burned the church down when it got so boring she could only think of getting out and go home.
She’d burned her pillow when she was feeling sad about her pet fish dying.

What was triggering her fiery breath?
She decided she’d go and ask somebody for advice.

Who would you go to if you needed that sort of advice? Why?

First she decided to read the paper.
Is that a good source for learning how to control your breathing?
Then she watched television. Do you think that helped?
Then she read a book about dragons and although that helped a bit there were a lot of things she did not understand.
She thought of the teacher at school, but no, she at times did not seem to be able to control her breathing herself. Although she would step outside the classroom to let off some steam, she apparently was not in full control all the time.
Finally she went to see granddad. He could light a small fire by breathing into a pile of wood, but never seemed to hurt anyone or anything doing it. He would light a candle by softly blowing on it if she was afraid of the dark without even melting the wax. But once when there was a competition on the beach she’d seen him win, by far, from all the other dragons when it came to flame throwing.
Granddad definitely was the person to see.

Do you think that was right? Why?

Now what do you think Grandpa said? What sort of advice do you think he would have given her?

He taught her a few tricks:

1. If you feel it coming: count to ten
2. If you can’t help yourself remove yourself to a safe place where you can’t do any damage and let it out (that is what the teacher did)
3. Think about your breathing
4. Practice in a safe environment to gain more control.

It took a while for the little dragon, but things are much better now. On occasion there will still be mistakes. Like that time she tried to light the barbecue and set the party tent on fire as well, but she is a lot better now then before. And quite often you’ll find her, with grandpa, practising on the beach…….

Now humans have a similar problem.
James writes about it.

Reading James 3:1-11
in a paraphrased translation from Laughing Bird resources for worship.

Sisters and brothers, don’t all go rushing off to set yourselves up as teachers. In the final evaluation, the required performance indicators will be much tougher for those of us who are teachers. None of us measure up perfectly. We all make mistakes, both in what we say and what we do. If you never got anything you said wrong, you’d be perfect, you’d have your whole life completely under control. It only takes a leash to keep a dog under control. A captain can control a huge ocean liner by turning one little rudder. In the same way, the tongue has an impact out of all proportion to its size. One little word can make a world of difference — for good or for bad!
One careless spark can start a bushfire that will rage out of control from here to the border. One careless word can be just as explosive. The tip of your tongue carries a destructive payload. One word dropped in the wrong place and all hell breaks loose — inflaming hostilities, blackening reputations, incinerating trust. Before you know it, your whole life is a smouldering ruin. People manage to tame all kinds of animals — wild horses, eagles, even crocodiles — but the tongue can never be broken in. It is like a coiled snake, unpredictable and deadly.
Blessings and curses can come out of the same mouth. One minute we are pouring out praise to the God who conceived us, and the next minute we are spitting out venom at someone made in God’s own image. Brothers and sisters, it’s not right. If we couldn’t turn on a tap without knowing whether we were going to get fresh water or sewerage, we’d never put up with it. You don’t go to an apple tree and find lemons, do you? And you don’t go to lemon tree looking for strawberries. If you’re an infested swamp, it’s no use anyone coming to you looking for fresh clean water.

Brothers and Sisters,

Humans may not breath fire, but they do have trouble controlling their tongue. What they say can hurt people, or change relationships, or give the wrong impression. We sometimes say things we later wish had never passed our lips.
Words spoken in anger, words uttered without thinking, can inadvertently hurt. And sometimes even not saying something we feel can do a lot of damage.
For the same token, words can make things better, express love and support, help and heal people.
So it is important we get it right.
Because sometimes we can make awful mistakes with what comes or does not come out of our mouths.

James is very aware of that. For Christians to be careful with their words, is as important to him as it is for them to do the right deeds.

For James faith and doing good are inseparable and it is this he is going on about in most of his letter. Being a Christian but not helping the poor and looking after the needy is, as far as James is concerned, incompatible.
In chapters 1 and 2 he has written at length about how people should treat each other in the congregation, how they should be looking out for each other and be looking after each other. Now, in chapter 3 James turns to another aspect of good Christian behaviour that follows to his mind, naturally from this for somebody with real faith.
Choosing one’s words carefully and in such a way that they will build up, support and help others and never hurt or harm is as important as looking after the poor and caring for others in the congregation.

James is well aware that words are tricky things. That they sometimes get out without us wanting them too. That sometimes they seem to take on a life of their own, and that even one word uttered with little thought can cause a whole host of unwanted consequences.

James tells us that for a Christian it is of the utmost importance to try and gain control over our words. Like a rider controls a horse by it’s bridle, we should bridle our tongues and control what comes out of our mouths. Like a ships rudder is able to steer a tanker, we should be controlling our tongue to control the direction our words take.

But how?

First of all says James it is important to look at your heart. If your heart is pure and full of good it will be less likely something evil and horrible will come out of there and find it’s way out through your words.

No muddy water comes from a clear spring.
In other words: The words you utter will always be in accordance with what lives inside you. It is therefore important to cherish the right attitude in your hearts: love, peacemaking, forgiveness.
Because we are human however, and therefore not perfect this will not always work. We are bound to make mistakes. That is no reasons to hang our heads and accept the inevitable. No, it is the more reason to try and gain control and find a way to master what we do with our tongues.
Like the little dragon, it is important to gain control by seeking a good teacher, to find good role models and to practice until perfect, and until we get there, be ready to admit any mistakes we make.

Like James himself does. Although I am a teacher he says, and although I write this letter to provide you with some good teaching, I have to admit that I do not always get it right. I make mistakes, like anybody else does.

Therefore, and that is another warning, be careful to put yourself forward as teacher. Because it is even more important for teachers to speak the right words then it is for others. Their words have greater consequences you see. Others practising their advice will multiply their mistakes if they’re not careful.

Now do we agree with James so far? That words are dangerous things? That we should try to control them? And that if the source of our words, our hearts and minds would be clear, our words would be as well?

Now, where would we look if we wanted to find reliable teaching that would help us with this? Where do we find ways to improve what is in our hearts and minds so we will be better able to produce the right words at the right time? To make our words instruments of healing, love and peace and prevent them from ever hurting or damaging anybody or anything?

Where would you go?

The papers?



How would you know a somebody was reliable enough to teach you?

How do you make up your mind about that?

How do you make that choice?

Is it by what the majority of your friends think is a good teacher?

Is it the person with the most eloquent speech, or with the clearest voice?

Or perhaps with the flashiest outfit?

Who were the people that have taught you in your life? Who were important in helping you to do the right thing, find the right words, be somebody knows how to speak words of wisdom that will not hurt but heal? Who helped you with the practising as did the grand father of the little dragon?

For James there is only one way and that is by focussing on God in prayer. It is only from him we can receive the wisdom of discernment between one and the other, between what is good and what is false.
He tells us in the 7 verses that follow on the ones Katy read for us today:

Read James 3:13-18.
Care, thoughtfulness and awareness are key words when reading James. Coming to faith a matter of striving to internalise the gospel in such a way that there are no bad thoughts left in our souls that at a moment of carelessness may get out. True faith showing itself in every aspect of our lives, expressing itself in word and deed.
A tall order, and only attainable by receiving it from the Lord. And even then: We will always make mistakes. That however should be no reason not to keep trying to get it right.
Says James.


© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2003

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