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Watching Our Words

San Williams

September 16, 2012
James 3:1-12

09-16-2012 Sermon I may not be very popular this morning with our Christian Education folks.  They’ve worked hard to recruit teachers for our fall church school program, and here, on the first day of our new church school year, I read James’s warning:  “Not many of you should become teachers, for you know those who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”  James specifically addresses the teachers in the congregation, because of the power of teachers to influence others with their words.  Oh, my. And those of you who will be teaching in our church school need not feel singled out.  Surely we pastors are included in the warning, as the title for our office is “teaching elder.”  And parents must also be included.  When we baptize a child, we ask the parents:  Will you promise to live the Christian faith and to teach the faith to your child? Yes, in the final analysis, all of us in the congregation have a teaching role.  At baptism, the whole congregation promises to teach, nurture and love those whom we baptize.  And furthermore, James’ warning needs to resound not only in the church, but also in a society where civil, truthful discourse is increasingly rare. So this morning James offers us a very timely meditation on the power—and the danger—of words.

To begin, James implores us to consider the tongue. It’s only a tiny organ within the human body, but its power far exceeds its size.  To illustrate, James tosses out a couple of metaphors.  Imagine, he urges, that the human tongue is similar to the bridle of a horse or the rudder of a ship.  A bridle is obviously quite small compared to the size of the horse it controls.  Likewise, a ship’s rudder is a tiny part of the ship, yet it is able to turn an enormous vessel.  His point is clear:  the human tongue has a power that is many times greater than its size.

And consider, James continues, the damage words can inflict.  He likens them to sparks that can set a forest ablaze. If in his day James likened the tongue to a fire, in our day it is more nearly like a nuclear explosion.  Now that words have gone electronic, their reach in exponentially greater.  Today words proliferate on twenty-four hour cable networks, ubiquitous cell phone conversations, through Twitter and Facebook, blogs, e-mail, text messages and Skype.  The great paradox of this is that as we move further into the information age, we also move further into the disinformation age, in which error, miscommunication, half-truths and outright deception become ever more common. More words, it seems, equal less genuine communication.

We live in an age when a video written by an Egyptian living in California can set off a firestorm of rage halfway around the world.  Or, as happened on Friday, just two words: “bomb threat” can evacuate 50,000 students.   Words, James rightly insists, have far-reaching power.  The tongue is like a small fire that can set a whole forest ablaze.

And let’s be honest, no one of us can completely control our words. James rightly acknowledges that when it comes to matters of the tongue we all make mistakes.  Especially in this politically charged election season many find it next to impossible to keep our words civil and our tongues in check.

Does this scenario sound familiar? You’re on your way to a social or family gathering, and you say to yourself:  “If the conversation turns to politics, I’m going to be calm and reasonable. Better yet, I’ll just keep my mouth shut.”  Yet when we hear someone say something that seems so wrong to us, our hearts beat faster, our blood pressure spikes and, despite our best intentions, out flows a torrent of heated rhetoric. It’s inevitable that as human beings we’re going to say things, from time to time, that we later regret. It happens to parents, it happens among friends and, alas, it even happens in church.   That’s why, even as we strive to watch our words, we confess that no one is perfect, and so we must also be willing to give and receive forgiveness.

The bottom line here is that our speech matters because it reveals the deepest truth about ourselves.  Our speech is indicative of our character. James hammers away on this theme because our words ultimately reflect our relationship with God.  Since God is merciful, generous and kind to all, we who are created in the image of God reflect that image when we speak in ways that are merciful, generous, and kind. In our scripture today, we read of James’s struggle to understand how we, who have our source in God, can continue to speak in ways that are hurtful and destructive.  James compares those who worship God while cursing fellow human beings to a spring that pours forth both fresh and brackish water.  “This ought not to be,” James cries.  Since we have our source in God, our speech—whether in public debate or personal conversation, whether on cell phones or text messages, whether with a friend or an annoying sales caller—should flow from God, in whose image we are created.

One of the most often-heard complaints from people who stay away from churches is the duplicity of Christians. They’ll give examples of a time they went hoping to hear good news but instead were met with gossip or harsh words of condemnation. As one commentator put it, sometimes seekers show up at springs marked “Fresh Water,” cups in hand, only to end up with mouths full of salt water. But I don’t think that’s the case in this congregation.  May our speech flow from our relationship with God.  May our words always seek to bless, to encourage and to heal.

A few years ago I shared a quote with you from an unknown source:  “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions.  Watch your actions, for they become habits.  Watch your habits, for they become your character; and watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

Friends, our reading in James imparts timeless and indisputable wisdom.  He teaches us that words have enormous power to shape human life, for good or for ill.  Knowing this, let’s be careful of the things we say and the way in which we say them…to the end that the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts will be acceptable in God’s sight.