Friday, September 22, 2006

Speak Up in Love (James 3:1-12)

I preached this sermon on September 17, 2006.

When I was a little girl, not more than five or six, I learned a word. It was a word that my mother did not want me to say. She didn’t use it herself, and she probably thought it was too strong of a word to say—especially for a mere child. I would often be reprimanded for saying the word. It would just slip out of my mouth. I must have picked it up at school or from television.

Oh, well….

I think I will tell you the word. But before you cover your child’s ears or your own ears—or go running for the soap to wash my mouth out—let me say that the word isn’t a curse word. It is probably one you say on occasion. The word is…hate. My earliest memories are of being told not to say this word. I was lectured about my use of the word because how could I know what it truly meant? And, if you think about it, hate is a very powerful word. To hear the words, “I hate you”—especially coming from someone you care about (like your teenage son or daughter), can cut straight to your heart.

After I got to be a teenager myself, my mother was a little more relaxed with the use of the word. I didn’t get the lectures I once did because I had more control over my language. But every time I use the word “hate,” I have to make sure it is right to use it—that it is the most appropriate thing to say.

By itself, hate isn’t a bad word. In fact, in some instances, it is even okay to hate. Ecclesiastes 3:8 even says there is a time to hate. So let us think of things to hate: injustice, poverty, abuse, indifference, etc. What do those words have in common? I know—we hate sin. But I think that everyone of us has used the word hate for the wrong reasons. We probably use many words for the wrong reasons.

Words can be used to harm other people. Not one person can come away from middle school or high school years and not think of something that was said to you, or by you, that hurt. Think back to when you were in the 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th grades. Now what do you remember? If you are like me, just thinking back to those years makes me certain that the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is false. Words can hurt.


When are you going to grow up?

We don’t want you here.

I think we should see other people.

You are not my son.

See how destructive words can be?

One of the ones that I remember—and I can even tell you exactly where I was standing—was on the last day of 6th grade. A boy in my class came up to me in the cafeteria, as we were lining up to go back to class. He told me that I was flat-chested, and I would always be flat-chested. Well…he was obviously wrong. But see how I took the memory of that incident and filed it away? We can say that harmful words do not matter. But you know that it does matter.

Let us be glad that words are not always harmful. I can think of words that are much nicer.

I love you, Daddy.

Your loan has been approved.

Will you marry me?

Welcome home.

You did a great job today.

You are my hero.

I’m sorry; will you forgive me?

There is a lot of power for good or for evil that has been placed on our tongue. Oh, yes. The tongue…. That is in our scripture for today. Why don’t I read that now? 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 mounts 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. (NRSV)

Wow! The writer of James doesn’t think so highly of the tongue. Perhaps he or she had seen the effect of harmful words within the early Christian community. The Christian community that the author of James addresses is a community of Jewish converts to Christianity, and they had not fully realized the ethical and moral responsibility of professing faith in Christ. The writer of James was most concerned that the early Christians should live an authentic faith. Within this letter, there is advice on how to be a doer of the word and not just a hearer. There is a concern that the congregation not show favoritism because of how someone looks or what their social status may be. There is a warning for the rich not to oppress ones at a disadvantage. There is a message about how uncertain the future is. And right here—smack dab in the middle of the letter—is this business about the tongue and its power.

The writer of James directs this message to teachers. Before you say, “Well, I’m not a teacher,” remember that as Christians we are teachers. As Christians, we are called to teach others about our faith. You may be a teacher to those you come in contact with—your friends, your colleagues, your children—and you may not even realize it. So this passage of Scripture does apply to you.

You also need to realize that you are going to fail. No one is really able to keep their tongue in check. The writer of James assumes that mistakes will be made. And we make mistakes in our speech. Who hasn’t put their foot in their mouth at some point?

So what are we to do? Will we just button our lips and say nothing because we are afraid of saying the wrong thing? Will we move to a cave in the mountains and become hermits or take a vow of silence? That is not an option for me. I like to talk, and I have been commanded to share my faith with others. To do that, sometimes I have to speak. The writer of James uses two metaphors to describe how the tongue can control you. One image is of a bit in a horse’s mouth. The other is a rudder on a ship. As the passage goes on to explain that the tongue cannot be tamed, I think back to these images and wonder if something positive cannot be said. Both the bit and the rudder are used for guiding. So even if the tongue cannot be tamed, it can be guided. And if the tongue is guided, there has to be somewhere that it is led. While our words can corrupt, there is also a danger of not saying anything at all. Will the horse be allowed to choose its own path? Will the boat be turned loose to drift?

So where are you going with the things you say? Are words of love coming from your mouth? With Jesus in our lives, we should be speaking words of love. Love is the opposite of that word I told you about earlier. Love is the opposite of hate. Speak up in love to your brothers and sisters in Christ. Speak up in love to those who need to know the saving power of Christ. What are you waiting for? What a surprise it will be to see positive things come from your tongue!

My mother and father live out in the country. A few years ago, my mother noticed that there was a toilet at the end of one of her neighbor’s driveways. It didn’t look like it fell off the back of a pick-up truck. It was off to the side of the driveway and was right-side up. My mother knew that it wasn’t a place for an outhouse, so she kept watching to see why the toilet was there. A few days later, she discovered that the neighbor had planted flowers in the toilet. It was such a strange sight. Flowers don’t usually grow in toilet bowls. Think of the surprise our neighbors will get when they hear our corrupted and untamed tongues speak a message of hope and love to them.

The writer of James offers a powerful warning for us in the last part of today’s scripture. Because the tongue can be used for both blessing and cursing and praising and scolding, we must be aware of what we say. When I was a girl, I sang this song in church.

Be careful little mouth what you say.

Be careful little mouth what you say.

For the Father up above, he is looking down in love.

So be careful little mouth what you say.

So how are Christians supposed to speak in ways that would please God? First of all, we must ask if what we are saying will uplift another. There are times when all of us need encouragement. No matter how self-sufficient you might think you are, there is value in being a part of a community of believers. We have the power to uplift one another through what we say.

The country church that I attended until I went away to college was broken apart by words almost two years ago. If you are familiar with churches at all, you know that there sometimes are words that are said that can split a church, drive off a preacher, and tear apart the witness of the congregation. That was what happened to the church of my youth. It was a situation that still makes me grieve over the loss of the witness of that church. I am thankful that I have found a strong community of faith here at Heritage Baptist Church, and I pray that we as members can uplift one another and protect our witness to this community.

Another way to speak that is pleasing to God is to speak out against injustice. Injustice is a curse on humankind, but we have the ability to speak out and to try to set things right. Injustice is perpetuated when God’s people do not speak.

Just this week, I read about an incident that happened in Selma, Alabama back in the days of the Civil Rights movement.

A large crowd of black and white activists [were] standing outside [a church] and [were] electrified by the sudden arrival of a black funeral home operator from Montgomery. He reported that police on horseback had just that afternoon ordered a group of black students demonstrating near the capitol to disperse, and then surrounded them and beat them at will. Ambulances had been prevented by the police from reaching the injured for two hours.

The crowd outside the church seethed with rage. Cries went up, “Let’s march!” Behind [the crowd], across the street, stood, rank on rank, the Alabama state trooper and the local police forces of Sheriff Jim Clark.

A young black minister stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s time we sang a song.” He opened with a line, “Do you love Martin King?” to which those who knew the song responded, “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!” Right through the chain of command of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he went, the crowd each time echoing, warming to the song, “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”

Without warning he sang out, “Do you love Jim Clark?”—the sheriff! Cer…certainly, Lord,” came the stunned, halting reply. “Do you love Jim Clark?” “Certainly, Lord,”—it was stronger this time. “Do you love Jim Clark?” Now the point had sunk in: “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”[1]

Through the song the crowd sang, the tension was eased. Because this one man stepped forward to challenge the injustice and violence that was on the verge of happening, the white sheriff—Jim Clark was converted from his racist ways. Jim Clark went on to get reelected by courting the black vote. And lives were changed because one man used his tongue to proclaim the love of Christ for his enemy. The tongue can be used to proclaim justice.

The final way that our tongue can be used to speak in a pleasing way for God is by praising God. We do that with our songs here at church. We do that through our attitude at work or school. Acknowledging our creator and remaining in a spirit of thankfulness can not help but bring praise to our lips. It is a struggle day-by-day to get to the place where we are truly wholesome—where our hearts and souls reflect God and our tongues cannot help but praise God. When our hearts reflect Christ, our words have to follow that lead and reflect Christ also. I think that in heaven, we will experience the true praise—“where we will no longer have to watch what we say, as our words there will express the depths of a love beyond words.”[2]

You know, I think Jesus went about this earth trying to let people know what heaven was like. Something about the kingdom of God maybe. It actually reminds me of a movie. It is one that your teenagers and pre-teens know about. And even three-year-old son knows about this one. I have a DVD player in my car to keep my son occupied—and boy, does it ever work. My son’s favorite movie right now is High School Musical, and I have listened to it over and over as I drive him around town: to school, to soccer, to church. So if you happen to see me in my mini-van, driving around and singing (and maybe even dancing a little) please know that I am not possessed.

High School Musical is a made-for-TV movie whose main audience is teenagers and tweens (or pre-teens). It is a musical, so there is dancing and singing—and a message. You see, the movie is about Troy, the basketball star, and Gabriella, the science genius. They are from separate worlds, separate cliques, but they find a common bond in singing. Their classmates get more and more anxious about the blurring of lines and the threat to the status quo of the school. In the climax of the movie, Troy is confronted by his basketball team. They trick him into saying that singing with Gabriella means nothing, and the singing is just a way to keep his nerves down before the big championship game. And Gabriella’s science friends show her through streaming video what Troy has said. See how much trouble came from Troy’s tongue? Of course, it is a Disney movie, so the ending is a happy one. Troy asks for forgiveness, and Troy and Gabriella do sing in the audition. The whole school, from basketball jocks to science geeks, from skater dudes to drama queens—everyone realizes that they are a part of the school, and they all in this world together.

And that is where something reminds me about the kingdom of God. Jesus came to a world full of cliques. The Pharisees thought they were the most devout. The Zealots thought they were the most passionate. The rich ruled over the poor. The Romans dwelled in the land. And in the face of it all, a carpenter walked among them and taught them about the kingdom of God. It is a place of unity for us. Paul told the Ephesians to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (4:3 TNIV). That same unity will ensure that we have blessings instead of cursings, fresh water instead of salt water, love instead of hate.

I think that the writer of James, with all the advice he or she gives, is actually trying to remind us about the kingdom of God. The way we act, the way we react to others, the way we live, the way we speak—all should reflect the Christ who lives in our heart. If we are truly a part of the kingdom of God, our actions will reflect God.

Do we promote the kingdom of God through the way we talk? As we go from this place today, let us remember the power of our tongue. It can be a power for good or evil. Our hearts will decide. Where is your heart? Does Christ dwell there? If you need to make a commitment to live for Christ, now is the time to do so. I offer an invitation to dedicate your life and your tongue to the glory of God.

In a moment we will sing “Take My Life, and Let It Be.” This song was written by Frances Havergal in the mid-1800s. In this hymn, “Havergal goes…to list everything she desires the Lord to take—moments and days, hands and feet,…silver and gold, intellect and will, heart and love,” and yes voice and lips.[3] It is a complete list. She wants her entire self to be consecrated—devoted entirely, dedicated—to God. As you sing this song, make her words the words of your heart.

Let us pray:

May the words of our mouths

And the thoughts of our hearts

Be now and always acceptable in your sight,

Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.


[1] Wink, Walter. “My Enemy, My Destiny: The Transforming Power of Nonviolence,” in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, Vol. 21, No. 2, March/April 2006, page 14-15.

[2] Kathryn in Ordinary Time: Year B Devotions for June to November by the RevGalBlogPal Webring, page 220.

[3] Partner, Margaret and Daniel in Women of Sacred Song: Meditations on Hymns by Women, page 61.

[4] Kathryn, page 220.