A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on September 16, 2012.
Psalm 19:7-13; James 3:1-12
There once was a preacher – a pretty famous preacher at that – who did not like the epistle of James. There were a number of things that made him feel that way, but chief among them was that he took issue with this book from a theological perspective… to the point that he did not think the epistle of James should have been included in the New Testament at all.
You see, this particular preacher was big on the concept of grace. He felt that God’s grace toward his human creation was completely undeserved, that God gave it freely to all in ways that go beyond our comprehension, and certainly our ability to earn it. He agreed completely with Paul who said, “By grace you are saved through faith.” He felt this was the only way of salvation, and what he found in the epistle of James, in his mind, contradicted that. So, when he read James’ words about how faith (or grace) without works is dead, he did not take kindly to it. He referred to James as a “right strawy epistle.”
My personal experience is that when someone finds fault with you about a particular issue, they will then start looking for other ways to think negatively about you as well. Eventually, their feelings will snowball until it becomes a complete disregard for who you are and what you do. That is what happened, I believe, in this preacher’s attitude about the epistle attributed to James. He did not stop simply at James’ view of faith and works. In regard to this opening verse of chapter three where James says, “Not many of you should become teachers…” this preacher I am telling you about is reported to have said, “You should have observed that yourself!”1 He did not care much for the epistle of James.
The preacher I am telling you about was Martin Luther.
Sometimes I think I know how he felt. And while I may not take issue with James from a theological standpoint, and I certainly have no problem with the inclusion of this epistle in the New Testament, I do find James’ writing to be a bit flat and uninspiring at points. It certainly doesn’t have the charisma of the gospels, nor even of Paul’s writings. And quite frankly, today’s reading does nothing to change that perspective.
Okay, then, let’s go home. Nothing to talk about, right? After all, if the preacher can’t be inspired by a passage of scripture, why even talk about it? We’ve all got better things to do than just fill time at church when what we’re doing is as flat and dull as the scripture seems to be that we read a few minutes ago.
Well, hold your horses. While James might be a bit dull in how he conveys his message – and you may disagree with me completely about that, which is quite all right – the message, nonetheless, is worth considering. And since he begins chapter three with a discourse on the human tongue, and how it can be a divisive instrument and carries great power for good or evil, we probably ought to take notice, if for no other reason than we all could give testimony to how we’ve gotten ourselves into trouble from time to time for something we’ve said that we shouldn’t have said… that and the fact that we find ourselves in the midst of a very heated presidential election season – not that there is any other kind, of course – where everything that is spoken by the candidates is scrutinized, if not criticized, to the nth degree.
In a season in which negative things are being thrown around in all quarters as if they are the gospel truth, it’s a good time to talk about the way we talk. So, if you don’t mind, we’ll put Martin Luther and his opinions on a shelf and we’ll do what we can to take the wise counsel of James very seriously.
I’d like a show of hands of those who have never gotten in trouble for saying the wrong thing. Okay, since I do not see any hands in the air, including my own, we will proceed on the assumption that all of us, at one time or another, have had loose lips. What did they say during the great war? “Loose lips sink ships”? Well, ships are not the only things that go down when we let our mouths get in the way of our minds.
I do not know if this actually happened, but it has become a classic story, so there must be truth in it. One day a woman came to Francis of Assissi in deep distress. She confessed that she had circulated a false rumor about one of her friends and was now conscience-stricken about it. She asked, “Is there any way I can undo what I have done and make up for this offense?” Without saying a word, Francis got a feather pillow and took it out on the porch, cut the cover, and fully emptied the contents into the wind. Then he turned to the woman and said, “Now go and collect all of those feathers and bring them back to me.”
She attempted to do this for awhile, but soon returned, again in distress, saying, “It is impossible, they are scattered to the four winds.” To which Francis answered, “Neither can you recall the words that you have spoken. They, like the feathers, are now scattered beyond your control.”2
The way James frames his statement about the human tongue just simply makes sense, whether it is posited in the spiritual realm or not. But, he elevates the issue to a theological one. It is not just human interaction involved here, he tells us. It has to do with our faith and how we live it out in relationship to others. As far as he is concerned, our speech is central to the practice of our faith. How we talk is in direct correlation to what and how we do as followers of Jesus.
When I was in college there was a very popular song we sang around the campfire at all our gatherings. “It only takes a spark to get a fire going.” Sometimes, it only takes a word.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes about the harm that small things can do. One of those harms, she explains, is a carefully placed interrogative (an interrogative, of course, being a question). “Here is how it works,” she says: “after someone has praised another person in your presence, telling you how much that person’s example of faith has meant, you cock an eyebrow and say, ‘Oh?’ That is all it takes to introduce doubt. That is all it takes to lay a match to the dried twigs at the base of a redwood tree.”3 “Oh?”
Kinda makes you not to want to say anything at all, doesn’t it? But words are what God has given us as the means to convey our feelings to others. Since we have the gift of speech, and don’t plan to give it up any time soon, we need to learn how best to control it.
James uses seven metaphors to illustrate the power of the tongue. One of those is a rudder, the means by which large ships and planes are guided. What he’s saying is that the tongue is small, when compared to the rest of the human body, but it is the rest of the human body, as well as our actions, that are often guided by what we say. His point is that what we say and what we do cannot be separated from one another.
John Claypool tells of a preacher in a large church who began a sermon one Sunday by asking the congregation to stand up. It was a bit unusual, to say the least, and caught everyone by surprise, if for no other reason than this was usually the point in the service where they were used to “settling in,” so to speak. But, one by one, they straggled to their feet. Then the pastor asked them to turn around and face the back of the sanctuary, which they did. Then, he instructed them to turn back around to face him once again, and then sit down. By this time they were thoroughly confused, if not somewhat bemused, wondering why he was having them do this.
“I have asked you to go through these motions for one purpose,” he said, “to illustrate the power of words in our lives. As you have just witnessed, words make things happen; they tangibly affect the surroundings into which they are injected. Just like bullets or arrows these little guttural sounds we make go out and do things to the people and situations around us, and for this reason we need to reflect from time to time on how we are exercising this potency that emanates from our lips.”4
That may be why Psalm 19 was chosen this morning, not only for our call to worship, but for our Hebrew reading as well. It begins by telling us what the heavens have to say about God. They are “telling the glory of God,” says the psalmist. If you’re going to have anything to say, especially about God, that’s a great way to do it, don’t you think? But there is one verse, the last one, of that psalm that we did not read. Do you know what it says? Don’t go scrambling for your Bibles. There’s no need; I’ll tell you, and when I do it will no doubt be familiar to you. The psalmist says,
Let the words of my mouth
and the meditations of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
Aha! That’s where the water hits the wheel! When the words that come forth from our mouths, combined with what is in our hearts, find acceptability in God’s presence, our lives reflect most what God wants us to be.
But it’s a tall order, isn’t it? I mean, we use words so much, even those who may not consider themselves to be all that verbal. When we talk so much, doesn’t it stand to reason that we’re going to slip up from time to time? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean we will stop talking… or should. It means we need to give some attention, some spiritual attention, to what we say.
James would have us use our words with discipline, to consider the destructive possibilities that exist in what we say. James calls upon us to dedicate our tongues to God just as we do anything else in life. James would encourage us to be positive in what we say, to temper our words with love.
After all, “what comes out of our lives reveals what is deep within us.”5 When you let a negative word slip, it is because you are thinking negatively. The same is true with any emotion. When your words are emotional, they simply convey what is in your heart. “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart…” says the psalmist.
Do I need to confess to you that this is a point at which I need to listen to myself? Yes, I think I do. The next time I criticize, I need to turn that criticism into praise. The next time I am tempted to be negative, I need to express the positive. Life is filled with choices. I can choose to build up or tear down, and as far as I can tell, there is nothing in all of scripture that would encourage me to think that tearing down has any redemption in it.
If I were to ask you to identify the people in your life who have meant the most to you, the chances are you would name those who encouraged you. My guess is, they did that largely by what they had to say. The words of their mouths, as well as the meditations of their hearts, came together in such a way that they were acceptable to the Lord and to you.
So, how are we to use our tongues wisely? How do we keep ourselves from destructively having loose lips? James would tell us it has to do with the “steady practice of faith.”6 I think he’s got the right idea, don’t you? And somehow, I don’t think even Martin Luther would argue with that.
Lord, help us to mind our tongues, to use our words carefully and redemptively. We cannot do that of our own strength, so we ask you to be with us in the steady practice of our faith. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1E. Elizabeth Johnson, Feasting on the Word, Year B. Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 63.
2John Claypool, “The Power of the Spoken Word,” unpublished sermon, August 10, 1975.
3Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year B. Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 65.
5William P. Tuck, “Controlling Your Tongue,” unpublished sermon, June 23, 1996.
6Barbara Brown Taylor, Ibid, p. 67.