James 3:1-12 CEB
My brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers, because we know that we teachers will be judged more strictly. 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. When we bridle horses and put bits in their mouths to lead them wherever we want, we can control their whole bodies.
Consider ships: They are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder. In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly.
Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of hell.
People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!
Both fresh water and salt water don’t come from the same spring, do they? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree produce olives? Can a grapevine produce figs? Of course not, and fresh water doesn’t flow from a saltwater spring either.
What do a tongue and a rudder have in common? While this sounds like the start of a bad joke, it’s no joke to James who sees the two having a lot in common, that things so small can control and direct so much! The U.S. during World War II must have felt the same way, as they put together a whole campaign around the dangers of careless talk. The title of my sermon comes from this campaign, which believed that idle sharing of troop movements could lead to the death of soldiers by letting the enemy know where our people would be. Loose lips could indeed sink entire ships! James also knows the incredible power that our words have, so James shares with us a warning to take care in how we speak with one another. To him, it seems incredible that the same mouths that often praise God will turn around and curse their neighbor. Over the past couple of weeks, we have heard how our actions matter more than empty words, but this does not mean that James intends to neglect the words that we say. Instead of being empty or full of evil, our words, like our actions, need to be part of our Christian practice of living out our faith in all that we do to show this world Christ.
Earlier, James' epistle reminded us to be quick to listen and slow to speak, so I feel guilty about even preaching this morning, stacking up more words rather than stopping to listen! At the same time, I know our lives are filled with so many quick words and fast talking. If something happens anywhere in the world, the news races to catch the story, sharing whatever facts they have scrounged as quickly as they can get ahold of them! Even worse than that, there’s social media where things go even faster. There is an intense pressure to be relevant, to get your two cents in on whatever is happening, and so the talking happens at a breakneck pace! Listening only seems to happen long enough for us to form an opinion and then have it posted or printed or shared or reacted to. It happens in how our communities communicate too. I am amazed at how quickly rumors and word of mouth spread, as I would swear they move faster than even the speed of light! All of this to say, where are we making space to listen? Where are we hitting pause on sending things out so we can actually receive something? Our tongues certainly seem to outpace our ears, and this can come at a significant cost.
The cost comes when our words get beyond our control, when they are allowed to spread, not unlike wildfire. You may have heard of the old rhyme, sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Well, I am afraid words can and do hurt. I know there are times where something has left these lips of mine, and I instantly wish I could immediately grab the tail of that departing word and pull it back. Have many of you have experienced this as well? When our tongues move quicker than our brains and our good sense, trouble quickly follows. That’s why I think James is right to compare our tongues to fire, the small kind that can get out of control and become raging forest fires. I think we see the truth of this. Out here in the west it seems like every year we hear about another major forest fire destroying homes and lives and acres of forest because someone was careless with a cigarette or did not put out a campfire properly. Words as well as small fires can become infernos when we lose control of them. These fires hurt the people around us, leaving scars as surely as any stick or stone or actual flame.
It reminds me of a scene from a 2008 film called Doubt, starring Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. In the film, Hoffman stars as a priest, and in one particular moment in the film it shows him delivering a sermon about gossip. In it, he tells of a woman who visits a priest to confess her sins. She tells of her sins, seeking absolution from the priest, and she starts to confess that she has gossiped about her neighbor. She asks the priest what she should do, if there is any way to undo what she did, so the priest instructs her to take a pillow and go to the roof of a nearby building. She is to tear open the pillow and allow the feathers to get scattered on the wind. She is then to return to the priest. She does as she is instructed and returns. The priest then requests, “Go, gather up every feather.” She replies, “I can’t! They’ve flown everywhere and I will never catch them all!” “That,” the priest rejoins, “is gossip.” Our words get away from us, they too are carried on the wind, and we cannot catch them. True not only of gossip but all speech that is spoken without stopping to think and stopping to listen. We cannot stop our words once they are out of our mouths.
My friends with the power speech holds, what are we using our words for in this world? Do we use the same mouth to praise God and pour out curses on our neighbors? Do we put out there words that harm or words that heal? I wish I could say that as Christians we only ever pour out blessings, but I have seen first hand the harm that Christians do to other Christians let alone non-Christians. I sat in many a classroom in my days in seminary, and I heard people tell their stories. I heard them tell about the scars that other Christians had inflicted upon them. Other Christians had told these beloved children of God that they were unloved, that they were unclean, and that they were unwanted. What breaks my heart more is that I saw people turn away from God because of these words. That’s the hardest truth of all, our words as Christians don’t stop at us, we are a reflection to our neighbors, to other Christians, and to this world of who God is and who God cares about. The truth is that those books in your pew and this one in front of me are not the first Bible people experience, that first gospel is those words that we speak to them. They know God by what we say and do. They know who God loves by who we say we love and also reject. I sat in a room where Christians had destroyed pieces of the kingdom. I sat in a room where Christians had turned those God would call beloved into a people unloved, so they turned elsewhere. Sadly, I too hold stories of times Christians have inflicted scars upon my own heart, and I am sure many of us here can relate. Our words have tremendous power, and each of us must pick if our mouths will deliver up blessings or dish out curses because they cannot do both.
What are we to do then? I could simply say that we should stop to think before we speak, but I think we are all pretty bad about that! As James says, we have tamed many of the animals of this world but we have failed to tame the tongue! If we could tame it, we would be masters of ourselves! However, we are quick to react. We are quick to speak. Perhaps the best advice I can give is this, who are your words for when you speak them? Remember, they will travel farther than we could ever possibly know and they will outlive us. With this in mind, I again ask, who are your words for when you speak? When we speak, like when we act, it should be for our neighbor. If we speak to correct, to fix, to tell them what is right or wrong, and to shame them, we have spoken for ourselves. Their hurt is our only reward, the scorched earth of our out of control little fires will be all that remains. No, if we speak it should be for them, to bless them and to build them up. If we speak, it should be the kind of loving truth, full of undeserved mercy and compassion, that God speaks into our lives. If we speak, it should be only after we have listened because how can we speak love if we have not heard them and have tried to know them? Does God speak love to us without knowing us? No, God knows every fiber of our being! God knows us inside and out and loves us all! How can we claim to love our neighbor, speak blessings to them, have our words be a fresh spring without doing the same?
I am reminded that our God knows the power of words. God spoke this world into existence. God speaks and those words become reality. We would do well to listen to the wisdom of God, be slow to speak as our words hold the same power in the lives around us. Our words can steer the ship through the reef or onto the rocks. Our words can cause people to be on fire with the Spirit or charred and burned from our careless flames. Let us listen first then speak. We may be the only gospel another hears. We may be the difference between someone experiencing the love of God or the hatred of this world. Let us choose our words carefully, let us not sink another’s ship, let our words instead speed them on their way! Amen.
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Pastor Paul Grossman