During the month of September, we have been carefully studying the book of James, a universal letter to all Christian communities. Last week our text highlighted how James instructs Christian communities to walk the talk which involves putting actions with our words. This week, James challenges Christian communities to talk the walk– to think about how our words impact others and how our words should harmonize with and walk in step with our faith. James reminds Christians to pair words with actions in ways that supersede unloving words- to be slow to speak, and quick to listen. Hear these words from James 3:1-12.
“My friends, we should not all try to become teachers. In fact, teachers will be judged more strictly than others. 2 All of us do many wrong things. But if you can control your tongue, you are mature and able to control your whole body.
3 By putting a bit into the mouth of a horse, we can turn the horse in different directions. 4 It takes strong winds to move a large sailing ship, but the captain uses only a small rudder to make it go in any direction. 5 Our tongues are small too, and yet they brag about big things.
It takes only a spark to start a forest fire! 6 The tongue is like a spark. It is an evil power that dirties the rest of the body and sets a person’s entire life on fire with flames that come from hell itself. 7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and sea creatures can be tamed and have been tamed. 8 But our tongues get out of control. They are restless and evil, and always spreading deadly poison.
9-10 My dear friends, with our tongues we speak both praises and curses. We praise our Lord and Father, and we curse people who were created to be like God, and this isn’t right. 11 Can clean water and dirty water both flow from the same spring? 12 Can a fig tree produce olives or a grapevine produce figs? Does fresh water come from a well full of salt water?”
What is the purpose of words? Think about your week last week—how many words did you say? What percentage of your words were helpful? What percentage were hurtful? What would your spouse, family, friends or coworkers say your normal percentage of hurtful words versus helpful words is? The average person speaks at least 12,000 words a day and this statistic does not include words posted on social media websites. So how do we use our words?
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” Who has been hurt by words? Psychologists and writers of Psychology Today look at similarities and interconnectedness of physical pain and emotional pain: They conclude, “Our language has always mirrored the connection between the two; we suffer from “broken hearts” as well as bones, and speak of “bruised feelings” along with toes. This all seems intuitively right because we recognize the common basis of the pain we experience, whether a throbbing headache or the pain of missing someone so much that you ache. Emotional pain is real.” Is there anyone out there who actually believes the line, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me”? I somehow doubt it, but now science has researched and proven the literal harm words inflict and the high level of emotional pain words can cause. Anyone who has been at the receiving end of a bully’s wrath knows that words are as blunt as stones and as sharp a honed stick. We should know better than to repeat the old adage about sticks and stones, for words have the power to cut sharply to our hearts and latch onto our thoughts days after we heard them spoken. Words hurt, just like sticks and stones.
Friends, we can be quick to raise hands when asked have we ever been hurt by someone else’s words…but let’s be careful and remember to turn the question around, to take a hard look at ourselves in the mirror. Who has either intentionally or unintentionally hurt someone with words? Growing up with siblings who daily tested the other’s patience and loving Disney movies, my mom was often quick to remind me of Thumper, the rabbit’s words in Bambi. At one point in the movie, Thumper observes Bambi, the young deer trying to walk. As a clumsy young deer, Bambi stumbles a lot to which Thumper blurts out, “he doesn’t walk very good does he?” After his mother prompted him to remember what he has always been taught, Thumper sheepishly responded, “If you can’t say anything nice; don’t say nothing at all!” This became somewhat of a motto growing up with two siblings. An easy motto to quote but a hard motto to live by.
James challenges us to train our tongues to stop and think before we speak. However, taming our tongue is difficult! Even though tongue is small, it can drive and control the direction of the person. Controlling what is said is like skillful use of bit to control the movement of horse or the pilot’s handling of rudder to maneuver a ship through strong winds. We have to know what we are doing and know the power behind what we are trying to control. The tongue, even though it is small, can hurt others in deep ways. Through the tongue the unjustness of humans is displayed. The tongue has the capability of destroying one’s religious practices and that of one’s community through that don’t line up with Jesus’ teachings. Friends, these are heavy words to say and hear though we should feel the weight of our words. James wants our words to be in line with who we worship.
Managing the words that come out of our mouths and not to mention all the words that fill our internet presence is harder than taming a wild animal. As quickly as we can tweet about something, we can hurt many people with our words. As quickly as we can bring praises to God, we can swear and lie. How are our words portrayed to those we speak with? Once our words escape our lips, they have tremendous power and tenacity for good or evil. Our words can include or embrace, heal or humiliate, lift up or tear down. The tongue though diminutive- can lead us astray as easily as a small rudder steers a ship or a small bit controls a horse. Our tongues can ignite a raging inferno that no one can extinguish.
With the same tongue we will sing hymns and pray for our neighbor; yet also with the exact same tongue we curse our neighbors when they cut us off in traffic or when they disagree with our point of view. And in 2018 it is not just our spoken words–we will post Facebook statuses and memes about blessing and praying for others and then immediately turn around and degrade our neighbors. We may throw out hurtful poisonous words of slander and insults directed towards our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our words can build up and encourage, or our words can be demoralizing and leave others questioning if we are truly Christians who follow our Lord’s call to love God and to love neighbor. Our words can express openness and welcome in our congregations and communities, or our words can have people running away from wanting to associate with Christians. James knows the seriousness of the words Christian choose. Friends, words have power!
A wise friend recently reminded me, “our words are like toothpaste; once they come out they aren’t easily put back in.” How many times have you said something and wished you could take your words back as soon as they left your mouth? Even if we don’t think what we say matters, often times our words said in passing have an effect on people who hear them. Our scripture passage doesn’t let us off the hook. Yes, we are all human and yes we will make mistakes- we all will bless the Lord and curse others with the same tongue…maybe even in the same breath. We will make mistakes, but do we learn from our mistakes? When we misspeak, do we own our mistakes and try to reestablish broken relationship? James suggests that there is never a relationship between humans and God which is not at the very same time manifest and embodied in our relationships with our sisters and brothers. James reminds us that none of us, no matter our importance in the world, are independent, unfazed atoms. Instead, we are links in an unbreakable and connected chain. For James, there is no knowledge of God that does not force an individual to gaze into the eyes of another person and realize his or her inextricability from the links of Christian community.
We are called by Christ to love our neighbors which also includes loving our neighbors through our words. Friends, we don’t always get this part of our faith right and Jesus loves us enough to call us out on this. Through Jesus’ examples of using words to enhance and build up God’s kingdom- Jesus shows us the way. To remind us that yes, as Christians, we will make mistakes and our words will hurt others, but yes, as Christians we are called to strive for our words to lift others up—to connect those who are different from us, to encourage and to share God’s love with others. What steps can you take to tame your tongue? James reminds us that before we speak, we need to pause and think to ourselves—are our words true? Are they helpful? Are they inspiring? Are they necessary? Are they kind? Are my words in line with my Christian faith?
Our challenge this week is to speak words which show others we are Christians. Will we make mistakes, yes—but as we make mistakes we must desperately strive to repair relationships and recommit ourselves to the lifelong, Holy Spirit led work of taming our tongues. How will you use your words this week? Friends, our words can build up the kingdom of God or work to dismantle God’s kingdom from the inside out by throwing sticks and stones at our brothers and sisters in Christ through our curses and hateful words. Perhaps if we can’t say anything nice, we shouldn’t say anything at all. Or perhaps Christians should strive to use our words to point others to Christ at work in our lives. We all have a choice. We all have a challenge; and we all have work to do. Amen.