The Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost –
Scripture Reading: James 3:1-12
Taming the Tongue
3 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
Sermon: “This Ought Not Be So!”
Let’s start with a little quiz. I’ll give you four statements, all of which are things that “people say.” Two of them are true. Two of them are false. See if you can tell me which is which. Ready? Here we go!
1. Heartburn in pregnancy means you’re going to have a hairy baby.
This one is true. Researchers at John Hopkins University in Baltimore conducted a study in 2007 to put it to the test and, to their great surprise, ended up confirming it.
2. Feed a cold, starve a fever.
This one is false. It comes from the belief that by eating more when you have a cold your body will heat up, and by eating less when you have a fever, your body will cool down.
3. Eating too many spicy foods will give you an ulcer.
We have another false here as well. The same compound that makes peppers hot can prevent and help heal ulcers, not cause them.
4. Gain a child, lose a tooth.
If you’ve been keeping count, you know this one is true. While women may not lose a tooth, there is a strong link between pregnancy and dental problems.
Here’s a bonus question. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Most of us know that this one is false. Sometimes, in fact, words can cause broken bones or, at least, as this clip shows, a bloody nose.
Our Scripture lesson today is about the power of words. Though James starts with a special warning for teachers and all who speak with authority, his warning about the power of words and the harm they can do applies to all of us.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. (James 3:5b-6)
Fear fuels that fire, fear of the other and fear of the future. It burns especially hot when we overestimate how right to we are and how wrong everyone else is who disagrees with us.
Fed by fuel that’s all too available, hurtful words burn through life, leaving devastation behind.
We see it in name-calling and bullying, which is a problem not just for students at school, but for adults at home and in the workplace.
Sometimes, it’s plain to see. Other times, it might just be the uneasy realization that every time you talk to a person, you walk away feeling worse.
If you can’t put a finger on why, you had best take a closer look. Adult bullies are more devious than the yellow-eyed, snowball tossing nemesis that Ralphie faced.
Then, of course, there’s the blessing as well as the curse of every small town, gossip. It can bring us together in a time of crisis. It can also do incredible amounts of hurt and harm.
The thing is that, thanks to the Internet, the entire world is now a small town. The latest hoax or rumor can fly around the globe in seconds and end up passed on many thousands of times.
Here, for example, are some of the most shared stories currently on Snopes.com, a popular fact checking website. I should add, in case you didn’t guess, that the answer to each question is “No.”
✓ Did a new deadly spider species kill several people in the US in the summer of 2018?
✓ Did a man die from shooting a gun at Hurricane Florence?
✓ Was the Georgia state line blocked off because of hurricane Florence?
✓ Did growers in Colorado cross breed marijuana with the Venus fly trap?
Laugh if you want. What isn’t funny is that gossip, rumors, and word-of-mouth—especially in their negative, hurtful form—change how we see the world.
Worst of all, James says, the same tongue that utters hateful, spiteful words also presumes to praise God.
No one can tame the tongue–a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. (James 3:8-10)
No, it ought not to be so. It isn’t just a matter of vocabulary, but of our spiritual allegiance. As the old hymn says, we must decide, “in the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side.”
The prophet Isaiah put it this way, “Woe to you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20
Living in a world like that, scholar Walter Bruggeman says, sets us up for “promises that cannot be kept, desires that cannot be satisfied, and fears that cannot be assuaged”
Thank goodness that, in what hasn’t exactly been the most encouraging piece of Scripture, James holds out at least a ray of hope. He reminds us that the same tongue that can wreak havoc can also praise God and be a blessing.
How do we get there from here? What we have to do, in the words of Anne Lamott, is “show up with hope.”
That’s the title of an article she wrote for the October issue of National Geographic. In it, she says:
You would almost have to be nuts to be filled with hope in a world so rife with hunger, hatred, climate change, pollution, and pestilence, let alone the self-destructive or severely annoying behavior of certain people, both famous and down the hall, none of whom we will name by name.
Yet I have boundless hope, most of the time. Hope is (for me) …. a sturdy garment, like an old chamois shirt: a reminder that I’ve been here before, in circumstances just as frightening, and I came through, and will again. All I have to do is stay grounded in the truth.
Near the end of her article, Lamott adds,
Sometimes hope is a radical act, sometimes a quietly merciful response, sometimes a second wind, or just an increased awareness of goodness and beauty. Maybe you didn’t get what you prayed for, but what you got instead was waking to the momentousness of life, the power of loving hearts.
I think it’s high time we show up with hope, starting with, but by no means limiting ourselves to, the words we say. Those words should bless both God and others, James says.
The writer of Ephesians adds that we should say, “only what’s useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”
Our words should heal, not harm. They should bring grace, not strife. They should build up, not tear down. They should give life rather than take it, encourage rather than discourage.
When what we say reflects that reality, we can join with the writer of Psalm 19 who prayed, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.”