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Pentecost 17B Sermon
James 3: 1-12
16, 2018


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James 3:1-12

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
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. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but 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. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us, in the name of his risen son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.

A little over a week ago I was sitting among some other Centennial High school fathers at our daughters’ soccer game. Centennial was winning pretty big, but the referee called the ball out on us when it clearly hit a member of the other team last before going out of bounds. Before I knew it I found myself saying, in words loud enough for my friends to hear, “what an idiot.” It was an instant attention grabber. My friend, Tim, said, “Rev (that’s what he calls me) you been drinking?” No I hadn’t … but for some reason I was upset at an honest mistake by a referee at a lop-sided girl’s high school soccer game on a Thursday night in Columbus, Ohio.

I hadn’t thought too much about that interaction until Tuesday morning when I first read through the scripture lessons for worship this morning, especially the reading from James 3. As a pastor, I know that I am judged with greater strictness when it comes to my speech. I am asked speak blessings to people all the time, through prayer and other conversations. I know the power of the tongue … and yet I am apt to let my tongue become unbridled at times.
What surprised my friends most at that game was that it was out of the ordinary for me. I usually try to be respectful in my language about other people … the one place where that gets set aside is when I am by myself, driving in my car – maybe you can identify with me on that. I admit to you that I call those nameless drivers all sorts of things when they get too close, drive too slow, cut me off, or don’t get moving when a light turns green. Could it be that what is written in this passage is true … just as the same well cannot produce both fresh and brackish water, from the same mouth should not come both blessings and curses? When we get used to cursing, it comes much more easily … even when we are NOT in our cars by ourselves!

There are many metaphors for the tongue in this passage – the author of the letter to James talks about the perfect person as if they have a bridle in their mouth guiding their whole bodies. He also likens the tongue to a rudder on a ship, small and yet able to direct the ship in where it is going. Finally, he says that the tongue is a fire which can set the while forest ablaze. This picture language helps us to understand the importance of our words. When people say, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me,” it is really a way to deal with the real hurt that comes with words directed in a hateful manner toward someone.

So what are we to do? We have the reality that all of us Christians are judged with a higher than normal standard, not just teachers or preachers. We also live in the reality that all of us make mistakes, as the author reminds us. On top of that, many of us are either active on social media or we see in the press the social media posts of people who seem to use those platforms to start forest fires, to continue the metaphor of the reading. With millions of people reading or hearing the name calling or nasty comments, the fire is ablaze and spreads quickly across our country and even our world.
This is so vital because it is a huge part of our lives. Words are more powerful than sticks or stones, and in using them to attack, we often can do irepairable harm to a person or a relationship. Martin Luther himself said that the 8th commandment – you shall not bear false witness against you neighbor – does not only mean that we should not lie or spread rumors about people, but that we should, “come to our neighbors’ defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” That is not always easy, to be sure! That is why we say that none of us is perfect – who among us has kept that commandment perfectly? I know I have not always interpreted the actions of those around me in the best possible light. You?

Sometimes that is difficult, especially when I have juicy news to share, or something has happened that I have a particularly difficult time accepting. We also deal with situations where those around us say some pretty mean-spirited things and we cannot help but want to join in the fight. If we can just keep from saying anything, often that helps us to diffuse a situation. The problem is, sometimes when we say nothing we give the impression that we agree with whatever is being proclaimed. How can we not give that impression while also not joining in an argument where we find ourselves setting the proverbial forest on fire with our tongues?

Well, last weekend at the speaking event at Peace Lutheran Church, author and theologian Brian McClaren ended his presentation with advice on how to do this very thing. He said that it begins by slapping your head with your hand and saying, “wow!” It helps, he said, to be bald (like he is) but anyone can do it. Then you say, “I really see things differently than you do.” Then don’t say anything more. If they press say, “I really don’t want to get into it right now, but just know that I really have a different opinion than you on this.” That expresses the fact that you don’t agree with them while it avoids the opportunity that we might have to set our tongues loose, steering our ships into places where we really didn’t want that rudder to take us. It also gives us time to prayerfully consider how we might address the situation in a respectful way, to defend others and speak well of them while we still stand our ground with our opinions and beliefs.

Our words are important. If we think of our mouths as a spring putting forth water, maybe we can consider how what we say can be construed as fresh, sweet water, or brackish, not worth tasting. Whatever we say may be blessing or curse to people. It begins with the language we use when we are by ourselves, like when I am driving in the car. If I can build good habits there in relation to other drivers around me, then I can build good habits in my personal interactions and on social media. Our words have the potential to be powerful in such good ways. As the front of your bulletin proclaims, they can speak life, hope strength, compassion, blessings and love.
May we bless the Lord always as we speak to and about our neighbors, doing so in the kindest way possible. May it be so, in the name of Christ; Amen.