Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
September 30, 2018
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. 2We 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. 3When we bridle horses and put bits in their mouths to lead them wherever we want, we can control their whole bodies.
4Consider 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. 5In 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. 6The 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.
7People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. 8No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. 10Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!
11Both fresh water and salt water don’t come from the same spring, do they? 12My 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.
My sense of humor tends to be sarcastic. To me, this is not a big deal, but it does get me into trouble sometimes. I’ll never forget in high school when I nearly ruined a friendship with a girl I had known and been friends with since preschool. For the most part, we had different circles of friends by the time we got to high school, but we still hung out together, especially at church. She was going through some pretty tough stuff in her life and she was trying to talk to me about some of that one night after youth group. I don’t remember the specific words anymore; I only sort of remember the topic of conversation, though I can guess. At any rate, she’s sharing, and at one point, I respond with some really sarcastic comment. I was trying to be funny, to lighten the mood. But my words had all the wrong effect. I hurt her feelings. Badly. It took months to repair the relationship, and honestly, it was never quite the same again. Though I can tell you that we do still check in on one another occasionally, even after more than 20 years.
I’d like to tell you that that incident changed me. I did learn a lesson, there’s no question about that, but I’m still a pretty sarcastic person, and though I try to be more careful, there are still times when my attempts to be humorous are really just hurtful. Words have to power. We like to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But the simple truth is that words can hurt, sometimes even more than “sticks and stones” because it can be a lasting hurt. Words have the power to “build up” or to “tear down.” So it is that as we continue our study of James this morning, we come to some thoughts from James on “taming the tongue;” on bringing our words in line with our faith. Because, much like our actions, the things we say, the way we use our words, can reflect our faith (or not).
I’ve never preached on this passage before. And honestly, when I started reading and studying for this sermon earlier this week, I didn’t feel like there was really much to say. I didn’t know how I was going to craft a sermon out of this, but as I continued on, I realized there’s far more to say on this subject than I have time for in just one sermon. That’s because words are everywhere. EVERYWHERE. We say them, read them, type them: in the morning we wake up and check our email. Then, we read the paper over coffee. We go to the office and converse with our colleagues as we work. We check-in with our kids about their day at school. We watch the evening news. We talk to our spouse about his or her day. Maybe we read a book or the Bible before going to bed. And somewhere in the midst of all of that, hopefully, we are lifting up prayer to God.
The average person speaks 860.3million words in their lifetime—that’s the equivalent of speaking the entire text of the complete 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary more than 14.5 times! And the truth is, we can either use our words for good or for ill; and that’s words both spoken and written. I told you a story about how my spoken word once inflicted great harm on a friend. In more recent years, we have seen the power of the written word, especially in social media. Far too many parents of children who have committed suicide point to bullying on social media as the source of their child’s difficulties and depression. I have heard it said that back in the early Spring (or whenever it was), we were just one tweet away from war with North Korea. One tweet—that’s 280 characters, like two sentences, online, that could have been the beginning of a massive nuclear war.
Words are powerful. Words used wrongly can be dangerous. Words cannot be taken back. We would always do well to think before we speak; that’s essentially what James is saying when he lifts up the role of teachers. Teachers, preachers, speakers—they’re all in a position to influence. That can be good, so long as the words of influence are positive, good, and consistent with our faith and the will of God. But when we use words to influence others in bad or negative ways, the damage can spread like a wildfire. Our language, our words are a gift from God.
I’ve noticed something very interesting about words. Usually, negative words, negative language spreads faster than positive language. Before going to seminary, Ken was a TV news reporter. He worked at a couple of different local affiliates around the Southeast and also up in Utica, New York. Ken frequently talks about how the stations were different, the stories were different, but one mantra was consistent between the stations. That was, “If it bleeds, it leads.” In other words, the gory, nearly unbelievable, sensationalized stories get more traction than the nice, feel good, positive stories. Just think about it, what fills the last five minutes of the national evening news nearly every night? (Yes, the last five minutes, not the first.) It’s the stories about a teacher who donated a kidney to one student’s mother. Or a story about an elementary-aged boy who led a campaign to get a flag on every veteran’s headstone this past Memorial Day. Or a bartender who gave a job to a teenager who once robbed the bar. These are wonderful, amazing stories, but they’re never the lead stories. Instead, what gets pushed to the front are stories about people fighting, about salacious affairs, or terrible scandal. And if you’ve got two versions of the same story, usually it’s the more eccentric one that gets traction and spreads. And it’s also usually those versions that do more damage to others.
You know what’s most ironic about this truth is that sometimes churches and congregations, sometimes the faithful, are the worst about using words in harmful ways. We spread gossip and hearsay without even a thought. A lot of times, even though we might know the truth, we get caught up in the “firestorm” (right?) and instead of correcting misinformation, or instead of stopping the gossip, we just go right along with it. I’ve seen this in every church I’ve ever served, and some more than others. I’ve experienced it here recently. Even though I was making a concerted effort to communicate about different things happening here at the church, there was an undercurrent of misinformation spreading through this congregation like a wildfire. This misinformation resulted in people being hurt. And until I learned about it, I couldn’t do anything to correct it; which, by the way, was to continue saying what I had been saying all along. We think its fun to gossip, we get all worked up about gossip. But when it comes to following Christ, the words that come out of our mouths really matter, and we should always think before we speak.
Our kids know that there is one rule at Camp Lookout. The rule is this: “We’re in the build ‘em up business, not the tear ‘em down business.” This is a perfect way for Christians to think about our words. We should always ask the question, “Will these words build up, or will they tear down?” And what we should hear unequivocally from James today is that if we discern that our words will “tear down,” we should not say them. Period.
I kid you not, as I was writing this sermon this week, that video of the Soddy Daisy High School Vice Principal broke. If you didn’t see it, it was the daily announcement video. The Vice Principal was going over the new dress code, and he said basically, “Boys, if you don’t like the dress code, blame it on the girls.” He wasn’t on a script. I think he was trying to be light and funny. But that absolutely was not an appropriate thing for any Vice Principal to say. As soon as school officials realized it was going to be problematic, they took the video down, but before they could get the video down the news media got hold of it. The result is that the Vice Principal’s ill-conceived explanation for the new dress code is now a matter of permanent record. Because of digital media and the internet, not only do our words have great power, they also “stick”. They could potentially exist forever, which means harmful words can go on harming far into the future.
Remember last week when we were reminded by James that all of our actions should be grounded in the great commandment to “love your neighbor as you love yourself?” Our words: the things we say, the words we write in journals, or letters, or emails or social media, the language we use with one another—it should all be a reflection of love. And not just any love, but God’s love. The words we use should build others up in the same way that Christ builds us up. That doesn’t mean we don’t name the wrongdoing of another—but there is a big difference between holding people to a higher standard as Christ did, and hurting others by tearing them down. The cure for all our tongue “toxins,” James says, is to practice our faith—not only in deed, but also in WORD. If God’s own word does not show up in our words—if we who hear the word do not also share God’s good word when we speak—then we are not living out our faith fully.