September 13, 2015 is Pentecost 16B – James 3, Taming the Tongue

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September 16, 2012

Proverbs 1:20-33 – Wisdom cries out in the street.
OR
Isaiah 50:4-9 – The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher.

Psalm 19   The heavens are telling the glory of God.
OR
Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1 – Wisdom is a reflection of eternal light. She is more beautiful than the sun.
OR
Psalm 116:1-9 – I will walk in the presence of the LORD. (Ps. 116:8)

James 3:1-12 – Not many of you should become teachers. Tame the tongue.

Mark 8:27-38 – Who do people say I am? Messiah. Get behind me Satan. If you would follow me take up your cross.

Is Your Faith Alive?

We are in a five-week series on James.

  1. Listening: James 1:17-27
  2. Works: James 2:1-17
  3. Tame the Tongue: James 3:1-12
  4. Conflict: James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a
  5. Healing: James 5:13-20

Here is this week’s text (James 3:1-12) in its entirety:

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 fig? No more can salt water yield fresh. 

Taming the Tongue

This is a funny passage to read at the outset of a school year: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

But of course, James is speaking of teachers in the church. It goes without saying, that if you stand in front of people to teach them, they will remember your words and hold you to them. It is a humbling thing to have your former sermons quoted to you.

There is an inherent danger here. We who preach and teach hold up a higher standard that we could possibly attain. We point to heights and depths of faith. We lift up the beautiful vision of a generous world. We call the people to serve the needy, visit the sick, and welcome the stranger. The second, however, you fall short of the lofty vision you proclaim, you will be called on it. This is as it should be, but it’s a hard thing. People put their leaders on a pedestal, even when we don’t want to be. So, we are held to a higher standard.

This became real for me when I became a pastor and started wearing a clerical collar. If you are from a tradition that doesn’t have peculiar clergy garb, you ought to try it out sometime. Once you don the garb of the office of ministry, people watch your every move. Everything you do reflects on Christ’s church. In particular, what you say and how you say it comes under extreme scrutiny.

Therefore, James has another word for us on taming the tongue. Remember two weeks ago? Quick to listen. Slow to speak. Slow to anger. James now seems to get around to what he was trying to say earlier. He tends to bounce around a bit on his advice for Christians.

The Tongue is a Flame

This is the passage I memorized many years ago. In this age of blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram, and so on, there are a lot of words out there. We are in constant tell mode. There are a lot of folks out there who are doing a lot of telling but not a lot of listening. Not a lot of reading. No self-searching. Additionally, the immediacy of digital communication, and the perceived distance, make it easy to shoot off a sharp remark without fully appreciating the consequences. I confess; I’ve done it. We all have.

What makes matters worse, digital communications lack the body language and tone of voice that often soften the edge of our words. Words are ambiguous and can be taken many different ways. A familiar acting exercise is to say the same phrase with a dozen different inflections, facial expressions, and body postures. You can make the same words mean the exact opposite of what you mean. Try this out with your congregation, if you dare. Have them turn to a friend and say, “I love you” several different ways: sincerely, sarcastically, emotionally, and deadpan. It will bring up some laughter and make your point.

What’s good about this passage is it’s one everyone needs to hear. It’s eminently practical. People will be able to put it to use in the car on the way home.

James uses the example of a small bit that guides a horse. He then moves to the example of a small rudder that can guide an enormous ship. Likewise, our tongues are small things that can set amazing things in motion. This is both a blessing and a curse. A leader says something, and immediately people start moving to make it happen. Be careful what you ask for. A friend once told me being a leader is like carrying around a megaphone. Everything you say sounds twice as loud. This is sometimes hard for leaders to understand. They underestimate the power of words for good or for ill.

The tongue is also a fire, James says. It can set forests on fire. Have you experienced this? Have you said something and been surprised at how it started a fire or even an explosion? Ask this question and watch the congregation nod.

James says many animals can be tamed, “no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” With the same mouth we bless and curse. Which do you want to be doing this week?

The time comes when you have to curse, so to speak. The time comes when you have to rebuke or speak the hard word. As Paul says, speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). That word will be heard, if you have been speaking a mountain of blessings over time. It is like Stephen Covey’s description of the emotional bank account. Every word of blessing is a deposit. Every word of curse is a withdrawal. The latter costs a lot more. If you have to rebuke, but have not been blessing, your account with that person will go bankrupt.

Remember Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.” Don’t hold grudges. Measure your words.

This is a lot of advice coming from James, but that’s okay. Keep in mind Paul does the same thing; he just balances it with the good news of the gospel. Paul speaks the indicative (what Christ has done) first, and then the imperative (therefore, I implore you to…)

What is the Good News?

“In the beginning was the Word,” John begins his gospel. God spoke and life came into being. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Isaiah says in chapter 55:11:

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 

God’s word accomplishes things. It endures forever. When we tap into this, amazing things can happen. When we announce the word of grace and love, it has a much more profound effect than we can imagine. When we pronounce a word of forgiveness, it can bring a flood of tears.

The good news is we have met the Word made flesh.

So what?

There are countless “so-whats” here. Lots of “go-forwards.” Below is a list. You could offer one or two, or type up a list and let people pick and choose.

Invite the young ones to think about their digital communications. What are the messages you really want to be putting out there? How do you respond to trolls? When do you choose silence and not respond at all? When someone jumps you online, make a practice to pick up the phone. People often talk past each other more easily in writing.

Consider taking a day of silence this week. Pick a day when you are off and can just be quiet. Take notes in a journal about what it’s like. Just be. Remove the need to speak or post. See what happens. Or, if that’s impractical, have a day of significantly reduced conversation. Speak only when spoken to, or when you absolutely must, and then say what you must with the fewest words possible.

Listen this week for interruptions. How often are the people around you interrupting one another? Interrupting you. Notice who is interrupting the most. How is power at play? What’s going on? Be aware of your own interrupting. Are you? If so, why? Is it possible to have an entire week where you never interrupt anyone? It can be done. I have friends, who never interrupt.

Take an inventory of your words this week. Listen to yourself talking. Every sentence. Keep a journal. Write down the things you find yourself saying. For your prayers this week, reflect each day on what you said, at the end of the day or the beginning of the next day.

On the other hand, in your journal, write down the things you’d like to be saying, ideally. What are the messages you really want to be sending out to the world? What kind of person do you want to be? How would you like to be remembered? Pick some top messages and start using them regularly in speech and in writing.

In your journal, write down the names of those with whom you will be interacting this week. This is an exercise you could encourage people to do during the sermon or during communion. What do you think the people you have written down need to hear most this week? How could you speak a word of blessing to them?