"The tongue is a fire"-Sermon for Proper 19, James 3:1-12
I have a friend, who for the purposes of this sermon, shall remain nameless, who just out of college worked in the office of then Lt. Governor Bob Bullock. Though he was a fairly low-level administrator being in his early 20’s and with little experience, he and the Lt. Governor clicked early on…at a personal level…and the Lt. Governor from early days in their relationship took my friend under his wing, if you will. In fact, over time, they became very close and my friend was even at the Governor’s bedside when he sadly died in 1999 of cancer. I say that to bring some redemption to the story I am about to tell…and hope that sounds intriguing.
So, again, in my friend’s early days in the Lt. Governor’s office they were working with a reputable law firm in Dallas that was handling some very sensitive and very important litigation on behalf of the State of Texas. And, my friend had a friend…a young lawyer…who was working in that law firm. So, my friend hatched an idea for a prank…and not one I suggest repeating. You see, he took a piece of the Lt. Governor’s letter head and wrote words on it. He wrote something like why are you all so badly messing up this legal work…which as far as I know they were not…and my friend added other words of recrimination, and he faxed it…if you don’t know what that is…ask someone around you who is older than about 40…he faxed it to the law firm in Dallas. And, this is the important piece of the story…he faxed it to his friend’s attention. The whole point was simply to mess with his friend…get him all worked up and nervous…a pretty intense, in my estimation, practical joke. My friend’s intention then was to call the lawyer, who again was a good friend of his, sometime later in the day to tell him he was just messing around with him. My friend, also, kind of assumed once his friend got the letter he would sort of know who was really the true author…for he knew where and for whom my friend worked.
Well, whoever received faxes at that law firm in Dallas did not take the letter to my friend’s friend. Instead, he took it to the lead attorney working on the case on behalf of the state…and unknown to my friend…that attorney immediately called the Lt. Governor to share some strong words himself. So, some time later in the day, my friend getting a bit nervous himself having not yet heard from his friend in Dallas, got summoned to the Lt. Governor’s office by his Chief of Staff. And, there, the Lt. Governor sat at his desk and without saying a word lifted up a copy of the letter high where my friend could clearly see the words he had written…and before he or the Lt. Governor could even get a word out of their mouths…my friend fainted…right there…out cold on the Lt. Governor’s office floor. When he came to…now on a couch in the Lt. Governor’s office…Lt. Governor Bullock said something to him like…don’t ever do that again…I will be keeping a close eye on you.
In our Epistle Reading this morning, Jesus’ own brother, James, writes, “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.” Quite a fire, though written words rather than spoken, was, indeed, set alight by my friend’s tongue. I am happy to say, as I mentioned at the beginning, that it worked out for him, despite his poor choice and use of words, if you will. But, I don’t know how okay those people in Dallas really felt. They were probably pretty badly shaken up by his thoughtless words. It probably stuck with them for a while. I imagine, even after learning it was a real bad joke, they questioned their work…questioned the value of their hard work for the people of the State of Texas. Words have power.
Now, of course, we know that James was speaking metaphorically here…for the tongue might be a part of our body’s delivery method for speaking words out loud…but whether spoken, written, or communicated through non-verbal forms of communication…it is in the mind where our words find their genesis…where they are thought up and formed…before they are ever communicated. But once out of us…once those ideas and feelings in the form of words are shared…spoken, written or otherwise…with another human being…it is, at times, often hard or just impossible to put them back into our mouths and minds…to withdraw them…or to use a word from modern forms of communication…to delete after we press send.
Now, James is pretty hard on the tongue…sure good words…words of blessing…words that give life and genuine care to others also flow out of us…and I will get to that…nonetheless we must recognize the great power of our words…the ability of our words to build up or to tear down. Like science that can manipulate radiation to cure cancer or build world destroying bombs…the power of our words is capable of creating for another person…great goodness and unspeakable pain. There is nothing clearer about the power of words than our faith…for we say God spoke the world into being, and we say that Jesus is the Divine Logos…that is the en-fleshed Word of God…who came among us to graft that Word of life and love into the very center of human hearts and minds…power indeed. So, if there is nothing else you take away from this sermon, I hope you will just take a little time to acknowledge that your own words have great power. And, though this is mainly to the good and a power used for good, we should indeed think more than just once before we use them…especially when things are heated, when we feel ourselves uncentered, when we are the person in the position of power, and when the person we direct our words to stands before us in a place and posture of vulnerability.
We’ve all heard the old adage…sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me…well that ain’t true…never has been…never will be. And, sadly we mainly teach this saying to children, which just belittles and magnifies their hurt, subtly gives them permission to speak thoughtlessly, and keeps them from holding those using hurtful words around them accountable. I have been bitten by a rattlesnake. I have had back surgery. I broke an ankle playing football. I got over a hundred stitches in my leg at one time. I have dropped a 10-pound wooden cutting board directly on the cuticle of my big toe…that might have been the worst. And the pain endured, in terms of how deeply it was felt or how long the pain lasted, doesn’t compare to the pain I have experienced by some of the words said to me…it is not even close. Those words coming back to me…years later…in unexpected moments…causing me to still feel the shame and self-doubt well up in my body. And to be fair, though I am happy to say my life is not full of regret, what I do regret…are almost entirely the words I have directed to others out of self-defense, or anger, or to make myself feel better, or to justify myself…and the like. I feel called to say this to all of you right now. If I have ever said anything to any one of you that was incentive or hurtful…I am so sorry…and I welcome a conversation about it.
So, though James’ rhetoric about the tongue is pretty intense...I think that intensity is well placed. For, words have power. And, we need to take that to heart now more than ever. For we live in a time of super-heated rhetoric, name calling, and painful division around a whole host of issues. And though the things we debate and argue about are vitally important, and we should stand firm for what we believe is right, as we prayerfully discern what is right through study, through the wisdom of God revealed in scripture, and through conversation with trusted partners…still how we engage, the words we use as we engage, especially around issues of great import and that we care a whole lot about, matters. For, however convicted and certain we may be about the truth of our position…whatever the topic…we must remember that the words we use express something of who we really are…something of our own integrity…what we value and are made up of and believe in. And, we, also, must remember that the one standing across from us is a beloved child of God made in the likeness and image of love alone…even if they don’t look that lovely to us in that moment. And…and…a willingness to listen before speaking…to provide due respect to the one with whom we disagree…a willingness to use graceful words…creates the fertile soil out of which any real change in a human heart is made possible. Further, if mutual respect is maintained even in great disagreement, through an intentional choice around the words we use, the light of hope remains…for, at least, the chance to actually continue a productive conversation is left alive. Words have power. I believe even the power, when thoughtfully and caringly crafted and used, to bring new insight and wisdom…real growth and new revelation…to unruly hearts and minds…our own and others.
And, as I mentioned earlier I would return to, we are, also, so full of good words…full of sweetness…full of kindness and encouragement…capable of sharing so many life-giving, love-filled words with each other and with so many people…and that are so needed. They are nothing less than expressions of God’s own endless love for everything God has spoken into being and called good. I have so often been the beneficiary of yours. And, just as I felt called to say that I am sorry if I have used unhelpful words, I like to think unintentionally, with any of you in my beloved family of faith…I, also, feel called to say thank you for your words of gratitude and grace…words of love so generously shared with me…and with each other. For, these words nurture and lift up our souls…remind us who we really are and all the good we are really capable of accomplishing. Nothing builds a person up more than words of love poured into their lives…they are where our courage comes from, the strength to get back up when we fall down, the ability to take risks in the name of love, the encouragement we need to seek after and fully live our one, wild and precious life…to quote Mary Oliver.
So, always err on the side of grace when determining what to say…really listen before you speak…don’t be afraid to pause or come back to a conversation if you don’t feel like you can maintain your integrity in the moment…sit on that email or social media post that makes your blood boil overnight or have a conversation before responding with a trusted friend…for so many, including myself, count on your words. For, as they flow from God’s great love that lives in the deep well of our own souls…they are words of life…they can make all the difference in the world. And, as committed and passionate followers of Jesus, when we speak, I believe we speak on behalf of Jesus. And, those lovely words, like music flowing from our lips, are the very song that lift the spirit of another…the literal nurture that those who we share our life with need…for the living of their days…to help shape their own words…to help them become more and more the very people God is building them up to be…until that day, in fullness of time, when all the words spoken throughout the entirety of this universe…the only words we are capable of uttering any longer…are words of love alone. Amen.