Okay. I want to try a little experiment with you this morning. I know this is probably going to be asking a lot, but I want you to trust me. We’re about to go on a little journey through the book of James together, and I want to make sure we’re on the same page. This is going to be pretty unconventional, so bear with me. When say go, I want all of us, yes, all of us, to stick our tongues out and leave them out for a count of five. Are you with me? Okay! Here we go. Ready… set… go! One, two, three, four, five!
Alright! Now, just think for asecond about how aware you suddenly were of your tongue. Sticking out of our mouths, it just sort of sits there, and it’s pretty hard to ignore its presence! In a sense, I think this is just what the writer of James is trying to do- make us aware of our tongues, as our scripture lesson centers around this strange part of our anatomy. We know how powerful speech and language are in our lives. Words are used every day in a variety of ways.
James compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship. This small part of a boat is one of the most critical pieces, and whether or not someone is in control of it, the most powerful. Without a rudder, a ship has no direction, drifting about aimlessly. In a similar way, the tongue is just as small, yet has incredible influence over our lives.
And sometimes… it gets away from us. James makes an interesting observation that human beings have been able to tame all sorts of wild animals, yet the one thing we seem to have little control over, is the small muscle that lies in our mouths. Dogs and cats obey us (some better than others!); we have even been able to harness the wind through sailboats, and to a certain extent, gravity as we fly high in the skies. But this silly little tongue… well that’s a different story!
As we read through our lesson, it becomes apparent that it is almost impossible to avoid this aspect of ourselves. In verse two, the writer says, “all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check…” But I am certain that none of us here would claim to be perfect, and that is exactly the point. We ALL make mistakes. None of us are perfect. Perfection is found only in God. However… this doesn’tmean we’re let off the hook. Rarely is it ever THAT easy.
Instead, the most glaring criticism comes in verses nine and ten, and this is what I would really like to focus on this morning. Let me read these two verses for us again, “With the 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.”
How many times do we say two things at once? In one breath we can be praising God but also be despising another person or group of people. What we are confronted with here, is how our speech and language affect our relationships with the rest of humanity. Is it constructive or destructive?
We find written in James echoes of the story of creation in Genesis. The beasts and birds, reptiles and sea creatures that we find in verse seven reflect the whole of creation God made. And on the sixth day, God created human beings in God’s own image. From the beginning, humanity has a special relationship with God AND with God’s creation.
One of the first and most important gifts distinctive to human beings is the power to name and to create language. In Genesis, God asks Adam to name each of the animals, thereby taking part in the creative process. So by creating language, humans continued God’s own creative activity in the world. And while language has the ability and power to effect both good and bad, it is the world creating power of speech that God intended for us. We see from the very beginning how speech calls forth creation- “God spoke into the darkness.”
Unfortunately, we live in a fallen world where we have stumbled into sin. When we curse a fellow human being, we break out of and away from the framework of God’s creation and God’s wisdom and place ourselves into the frame of competition and envy and violence and murder, which for James means to betray the purpose of creation. “My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”
We are called this morning to consider the way we use our words. How have we used our words in the last week, month, and year? Have we used them to build up our brothers and sisters? Or to tear them down? The language and rhetoric of fear seems to have permeated every aspect of our lives these days. Whether it is a cable news personality warning about the latest statistics on our vulnerability to a terrorist attack, or a politician who scares us into hoarding our money because the future looks “bleak.” Why is this so? More often than not, it seems that this fear is used to make us “buy into” a political candidate; to make us think it is necessary to buy the most expensive products that make us look younger; to lead us to consume more foods- comfort foods- that may make us feel better temporarily, but are extremely unhealthy for us in the long run- Big Mac anyone? God’s intentions for us, as James notes, is not to tear down one another. When we curse a brother or sister, we are, in essence, betraying our allegiance to the God we praise this morning.
And who ARE our brothers and sisters? The book of James was likely written in the very early days of Christianity. It is a witness to the diversity of that early age. James was not writing specifically of Christian interactions with other Christians. Far from it! The way we speak to and about ALL people is on trial here.
Let me put it another way… those of us who come together every Sunday morning to praise and worship our magnificent Creator are, each and everyone of us, ambassadors of Christ. How we act not only in public, but in our personal lives, reflects the Christ we confess belief in. If we are aware then, that language can both enable AND suppress human creativity, we must heed the call to maintain freshness, flexibility, and poetic power within the language of faith, so that ALL God’s people can feel the love and presence of Christ reflected within it and within us.
This passage is often referred to as the “it’s important not to gossip!” passage. However, it is so much more than that. It is not only the whisperings of racist remarks and ethnic jokes told over lunch that break apart our relationship with creation, it is our attitudes and beliefs, prejudices and intolerances that are reflected in our speech. How we reactand interact with God’s WHOLE creation is at issue. Our human speech must be placed in the context of God’s Word.
Speech is more than a problem to be solved. James points out that we are all imperfect and incapable of being free of mistakes. However the power at work in the tongue is not simply that of human vice, but of a system of values that is positively at odds with God and God’s purposes for us. If I could encourage us to walk around all day every day with our tongues sticking out, I would! How much more aware of our tongues would we be if that was possible? Rather, we must hold up passages like this, and indeed all of scripture, to remind us of the power our words hold, and guide us in the path of Christ. Amen.