This sermon was preached today, 3.8.15 in the first and third services at First Presbyterian Church, Elkhart. It is third in a series on spiritual practices.
2 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. 3 When we bridle horses and put bits in their mouths to lead them wherever we want, we can control their whole bodies.
4 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. 5 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. 6 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.
7 People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. 8 No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. 10 Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!
11 Both fresh water and salt water don’t come from the same spring, do they? 12 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.
“We all make mistakes often, but those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity.” Those who don’t make mistakes with their words? Who are these mythological creatures? Do we have any in the room?
Words spoken. Words left unspoken. It its so easy to err in this regard. Sharing a secret that is not ours to share. Cutting others off or down. Failing to speak when injustice is unfolding before us. Spreading rumors. Attacking. Making commitments we can’t honor. Misconstruing events. Changing our story depending to whom we’re speaking. Missing the opportunity to speak encouraging words of love and support. And sometimes it is just our tone that’s a problem— our words themselves might be fine, but as C puts it… we can sound snappish. Or worse.
And right now many of us speak without ever opening our mouths as we e-mail, text, update Facebook, tweet, blog, or comment on myriad on-line postings. Have you noticed… It is often observed how absolutely cruel speech on-line can be. Reading comment threads can be horrifying. There’s even a name for people who regularly post anonymous, hateful comments on-line— they’re called trolls.
One of my favorite radio shows, This American Life, examined this phenomenon in a recent episode titled “If you don’t have anything nice to say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS.” That’s how you shout in text, in all caps. The first story in this episode was about a blogger who weighed in on an internet debate between comedians and feminists about rape jokes. She herself is a comedy writer and a feminist, so she thought her perspective might add something to the conversation. She suggested that she thinks a lot of male comedians are careless with the subject of rape. Not all that radical a statement. In response to this, some of the most hateful speech imaginable filled her comment threads. I won’t repeat it. Violent speech directed at her. Truly awful stuff. But the focus of the radio story was on the worst comment she ever received from a troll— it was a message on twitter from her dead father. And it was mean. And her dad was never mean. So she knew that even if someone could communicate from the grave, this wasn’t him. Whoever posted this went to great lengths to find out about her family, create a fake account using her father’s name, and use her father’s name to say something to hurt her.
She usually tries not to respond to trolls because it only feeds them and it usually makes things worse, but this was so terrible, she wrote an article about the pain it had caused her. And it turns out that for this troll, this was his lowest blow, and it haunted him, and when he read of her pain, he chose to apologize and began to change his behavior. She interviewed him and learned that when he was actively trolling he was deep in a pit of self-loathing and the way in which she presented herself as a confident, even proud person, at peace with her body and her life, infuriated him. So she became a target.
I share this story because it illustrates how much power words have, and how powerless people can be over their use of words. This troll was spewing hatred in the form of words because of how much he hated himself and his life. Somehow he forgot that he was communicating to living, breathing people. Or didn’t care. He is responsible for the words he screeched throughout the world wide web, but I truly believe he was powerless over them. His words were guiding him to destruction and they took on a life of their own.
This is an extreme example, but I think all of us can relate to the way that words can carry us to places we never intended to go. Liz Phair sings about this in her song “The Divorce Song.” As she sings through the demise of an intimate relationship she suggests both that her words wounded her spouse and that her spouse’s words had wounded her. The song begins “When I asked for a separate room it was late at night and we’d be driving since noon. But if I had known how that would sound to you, I would have stayed in your bed for the rest of my life.” And later she sings “But when you said that I wasn’t worth talking to, I had to take your word on that. But if you had known how that would sound to me, you would have taken it back, and boxed it up and buried it in the ground.” Words can carry us to awful places. And frequently they spill out so quickly that we’re transported before we even realize what we’ve said.
So when James says “those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity,” if you scoff a bit, I understand. Many of us, most of us? All of us? make mistakes with our words all the time. But James acknowledges this, doesn’t he? Though humans have tamed virtually every animal, we cannot tame our own tongues. We can’t. We’re powerless.
But yet James wants us to try. Here’s something we need to realize about the letter of James— it was an inside document. It was written for those who had already come to faith in Jesus Christ and put their trust in the saving power of God in Christ, and now were seeking to live transformed Christian lives. The whole letter is answering the question “How therefore should we live?” And James has two main foci in his efforts to answer this question— relation to the poor and quality of speech. Our passage today focuses on the latter— but a concern for right speech is peppered all throughout the short letter.
What James seems to be saying is that what we say matters in our journey to union with Christ. He is particularly concerned with inconsistency among Christians— about confessing belief, but failing to put that belief into practice, and about double speak. We heard that in today’s passage, right? After admitting we can’t tame the tongue he says with the same tongue we bless God and curse our neighbors. Remember the greatest commandment that Jesus identified? Love of God and Love of Neighbor— together as one. James actually seems to believe that we love God BY loving our neighbor and that what say, or fail to say, is a crucial way we enact or betray love of neighbor. And he’s right, isn’t he? Don’t we know that with our words we bless God and curse one another? Don’t we know that words are significant vehicle of both love and hate?
Because this is an inside document, James expresses a particular concern for speech that unfolds among Christians, in the Christian community. How do we speak to and of one another? I’ve noticed that my tongue is often least controlled among the people I know best… and that I have the greatest potential for damage in this sphere. This is true in families. And it is true in churches— our extended family in Christ. Even church participation carries with it the danger of fires set by unbridled tongues. We know this is true.
And I think few of us would disagree that ideally we would have greater control of our tongues so that we might thereby use our words to further love of God and neighbor in all times and places— but we need to start somewhere. And I want to suggest today that we take a cue from Alcoholics Anonymous and apply the first three of the twelve steps to this struggle. Most simply put the first three steps are I can’t. God can. I think I’ll let God try.
We are powerless over our tongues.
God has power.
We ask God to bridle our tongues and guide us thereby into life.
It starts by admitting that we have a problem, that we need God’s help, and trusting God to help us. And while it might seem like admitting we’re powerless is an admission of defeat, it is actually the first step to victory. And I’m here to tell you that God has given you and me the church as a primary tool to help us live transformed lives and grow in faithfulness. God speaks to us through the ministry of the church and uses our relationships in the church to nurture our growth. If we let God, God can use our church participation to invite us into different patterns of speech right in our our own faith community. God can change the way we speak to and of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. God can guide us into patterns of speech that build up rather than tear down. And when we practice our faith in this way, by letting the way we speak in church and about church and about fellow church members be transformed… I suspect we will find our speech transformed beyond the church as well.
Resources in addition to Scripture, which significantly influenced, or were cited in this sermon:
Gench, Frances Taylor. Hebrews and James, Westminster Bible Commentary Series. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.
The Liz Phair song is found on her album Exile in Guyville. This is quite an explicit album and may be offensive to some listeners.
Image found here.