James: Taming the Tongue
Once upon a time I was a little girl going up front for Children’s Time at my little country church in Westernville, NY. I can’t tell you that all the message and lessons stuck with me. But I still remember one very well – the pastor was asking us to guess what the strongest muscle in our body was. We all tried to guess, but were surprised when the pastor told us that the tongue was actually the strongest muscle. So strong, he said, you have to be careful, thoughtful, about the words you say, about how you speak. That message has stuck with me. Now, eventually, I researched a little to figure out – is it really the strongest muscle? It isn’t. It was a bit of a hyperbole. But the gist is true. It’s a small part of us with incredible power – power to build up, to heal, to strengthen, and power to hurt, and tear down, and destroy. How do you use your words? How do use the muscle, the power that you have in the way that you speak? What words are you sending into the world?
“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” This phrase seems to have appeared sometime in the mid-1800s (1), perhaps meant to be a way to help people withstand verbal mistreatment. But anyone who’s been on the receiving end of consistent bullying can tell you how wrong this little saying is: words are powerful. Immeasurably powerful. Words can do a great many things, and certainly, causing harm is one of them.
Words are powerful, and have consequences, even when we speak them quickly, thoughtlessly, without much intent behind them. I think, for example, of my grandmother. Her sister told her, when they were children, that she couldn’t sing – she didn’t have a nice voice. My grandmother took those words to heart. They worked deep down into her soul. Decades later, when my mom was a girl, and the family would sing songs in the car on trips, my grandmother would never join in. My grandmother was shaped by those words, which in turn shaped the childhood experiences of my mother. I’m sure my great aunt never imagined that her words would cause such a permanent, lasting feeling. But the words caused hurt. Powerful, the words we speak.
Words are powerful. When I was in high school, I was part of the Conference Council on Youth Ministries – CCYM – our conference’s team of youth leaders from area churches. We’ve had some folks from this church participate in CCYM over the years and attend CCYM events. At a CCYM event at Casowasco one year, Rev. Rebecca Dolch was our keynote speaker. She had us split into two groups. One group sat in a circle on the floor, and the other group stood in a circle around them. In the outside group, each person had to think of an encouraging word or phrase to share with those in the inside group. And then, as music played, the outside group rotated around, sharing their message in a whisper to each person on the inside group. So if you were sitting on the inside, as people moved around the outside, you’d hear a string of affirmations: “You’re beautiful. I love you. You’re a gift. God loves you. God calls you. You’re special. I care about you. You’re made in God’s image.” Then inner and outer circles switched, and the process was repeated. It is still, all these years later, one of the more meaningful experiences I’ve had – both when I was sharing words of affirmation and receiving them. Powerful, the words we speak.
I’m guessing that you can remember, if you think over your life, times when words had an amazing impact on your life – some good, some bad. I can remember words spoken to me thirty years ago that hurt my feelings. And thankfully, I can also remember words that made my heart swell with joy. What words do you remember hearing that shaped your life? What words do you remember saying – words of affirmation, or words that caused harm? I’ve been wrestling recently with words that I said about someone that were unkind and hurtful. And indeed, my words, comments made by me without much thought or intent, without much time or energy put into them – led to a series of events that have caused considerable pain. I know I won’t forget. Powerful, the words we speak. In our world today, we produce more words than ever, but more than ever, our words are disconnected from our person – we speak at a distance, through our phones, through email, through text, through facebook. Online, we don’t even have to claim our words, and the power of being able to speak anonymously online seems to have unleashed our desire and ability to say the worst things we can think of saying to hurt each other. What words do you speak online that you would never speak face to face? We must claim those too! Powerful, the words we speak, in whatever medium we speak them.
We’re continuing on in our study of the letter of James this week. Nearly half of what James writes in this short letter is tied in some way or another to how we speak, how we interact with each other. Throughout the work he calls for us to speak truthfully, to be careful of speaking judgmentally, to be quick to hear and slow to speak. He calls on us never to speak about each other falsely. And here, in today’s passage, are his most direct, compelling words about how we speak. He starts by saying that not many of us should become teachers, because teachers are judged with greater strictness. Anyone here agree with that? Teachers have authority over others, and certainly in spiritual matters, those who teach others about God and what God is like and how we are called to live – that’s a serious task that requires us to take serious responsibility for our work.
James says that the tongue, our mouths, our words – they’re like the bit one uses with a horse – a tiny piece that steers the whole direction of the horse. Our tongues are like the rudder on a ship. Proportionally small to the whole – a rudder is responsible for directing the whole boat. The power of our words, says James, is like the power of a small fire, which can burn down a whole forest. Humans have managed to tame whole species of animals, whole segments of creation – but have failed to tame the tongue. The result? “With [our tongue] 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 writes. How compelling, how meaningful are our words of praise, our words of thanksgiving, our words of prayer, our words of love, if we also use our words to hurt and harm? How can we praise God and curse what God has created in God’s very image?
Think about the power of words that shape our Christian identity. We’re bound together by the scripture, words that describe the story of God and God’s people. God created with words. “God said let there be light … and there was light.” We call Jesus the Word too – in the gospel of John, John says that “the word became flesh and lived among us.” The Word in human form in the person of Jesus. I think of the words Jesus speaks. Teaching and preaching. Words that heal, literally. Words that set people free from sin. Words that forgive. Words that challenge. Words of love. I think of the words of our community of faith. The words we know as the Lord’s Prayer. The words of the hymns. The words of our sacraments – “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” “This is my body, broken for you.” Powerful, the words we speak.
So what do we do about it? Knowing our words are so important, what do we do? It’s tempting to think that it’s only what we do, not what we say that matters. But like we talked about with faith and works last week, we can’t really have just one or the other. Our words shape us and shape others. So how do we, as people of faith, become more thoughtful, more faithful, in our speaking?
When we need to, we start by using these powerful words: “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.” These words, offered with sincerity, can change everything. Sometimes I think about all the ways we try to avoid having to say “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong.” We say, “I’m sorry, but…” and follow with basically an explanation of why we are not sorry at all. Or “I’m sorry that you got upset with me.” This is another non-apology, basically a criticism of the other party, rather than a sincere admitting of wrong. How about the phrase, “My apologies.” I find myself slipping into that phrase when I’m telling someone that I’m sorry I haven’t emailed them back more promptly. “I’m so sorry. I was wrong.” Words to offer to God and one another.
We’ve talked a lot about building each other up as the Body of Christ, and that’s another thing we can do with words. I remember as a child attending our church camps, a camp rule was that there were “no put downs.” And if you did put someone down, you had to apologize by giving “two put ups and a hug.” In other words, you had to find two ways to build the person back up that you had just knocked down. How can you put someone back up who has been knocked down by words – your words, or someone else’s? On my desk in my office, you’ll see a big plastic jar, full of little slips of paper. My home church gave that to me when I started my first church. They wrote on index cards words of affirmation, and told me that when I was having a hard time in my ministry, I should open the jar and read some of the words. I’ve added to it over the years, if someone sends me a note that touches my heart. The words on those cards mean so much to me, and they remind me that I am loved and cherished. They give me strength and encouragement. I don’t even have to read the cards most of the time – I can just look at them sitting in the jar, and remember.
I challenge us to remember that our words are powerful this week – even when we think we’re in places where our words don’t “count” as much – when we’re driving, when we’re interacting online, when we’re anonymous, when we’re speaking with people who are serving us – wait staff, cashiers, customer service, someone who’s kept us on hold for thirty minutes. Let us remember our words when we’ve been hurt, and our first impulse is to hurt back. We are all teachers, friends, in so far as our whole lives are witnesses to the work of Jesus in the world. And so we have a great responsibility. What do our words tell others about who Jesus is, and who his followers are? I hope our words tell the story of God’s amazing love and grace in a powerful and convincing way.
“Let the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer.” Amen.