The Fiery Power of the Tongue - A Sermon for Pentecost 17B (James 3)

Delta Fire - Noah Berger, AP

James 3:1-12

Growing up, my mother drilled into me that it was unbecoming of a young man to use “swear words.” I seem to have learned the lesson well. While these words have become commonplace in our culture, they’re not part of my vocabulary. Thanks Mom!  As Brett and I drove across the country, this very topic came up. It seems that we had conveyed a similar message to him. That doesn’t mean any of us are perfect in the way we speak. I might not use “swear words,” but I have said things that are inappropriate and perhaps destructive. So, I too am a sinner!  

On that note we return to the Letter of James, which tells us: “If anyone appears to be ‘religious’ but cannot control his tongue, he deceives himself and we may be sure that his religion is useless” (Jms. 1:26 JB Phillips). James made that comment as he tried to define religion that is “pure and undefiled before God.” Besides controlling or bridling the tongue, he added caring for widows and orphans and keeping oneself unstained from the world (1:27). In other words, watch what you say. 

When we got to chapter 2 last Sunday, we encountered Jesus’ Royal Law: “You shall love our neighbor as yourself.”  Now, in chapter 3, James returns to the use of the tongue. He directs his attention to preachers and teachers, who are charged with leading congregations with their words. Apparently, this is a dangerous occupation, because teachers and preachers “will be judged with greater strictness.” Since it’s in my job description to preach and teach, I will take this message under advisement, and I’ll try to be careful with my words. 

While James had people like me in mind here, I think we can extend his directive about the use of the tongue to cover other speakers. Words have consequences, and as the gospel song puts it: “it only takes a spark to get a fire going.” Kurt Kaiser may have had something else in mind when he wrote these words, but I believe they fit our topic. 

Growing up on the West Coast, where forest and grass fires are common, I heard this message with regularity. Smokey the Bear would appear in Forest Service ads, telling us: “Only you can prevent forest fires.”  We learned early on that a cigarette butt thrown out a car window could have disastrous effects, and the same is true of a small campfire left unattended. Just a small gust of wind, and the fire will be off and running. What was true back then is even more true today, as temperatures soar and drought dries out the land. Yes, it only takes a spark lifted by the wind to land in a tree or grass to set in motion a raging fire that leaves death and destruction in its wake. 

It’s good to remember that a spark is a very small element of fire. It may be small, but as James points out, small things can have great power. Just think of a microscopic pathogen that enters the body, causing sickness, and then gets passed on to others, setting in motion an epidemic. One of the dangers from the flooding connected with Hurricane Florence is the presence of e coli and other forms of bacteria in the water. Just wading in it can lead to sickness and more. Yes, “it only takes a spark to get a fire going.”   

James can come across as a bit harsh, but he seems to understand human nature. He probably observed the dangerous power of the tongue operating in the church. Maybe, he observed it in himself. I know I have observed its dangerous powers operating in my own life, even if I do refrain from using unbecoming words.

I expect we’ve all been victims of someone’s loose lips. We’ve probably also been perpetrators. It might be a flippant remark about someone’s weight or their clothing or they way they performed a particular task. Even if we didn’t mean to be malicious, we may have humiliated this person. Remember that old saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” I can tell you from personal experience that names do hurt. They can hurt deeply. They can leave lasting scars and even destroy lives. This was true back when I was growing up, and it remains true today. The only difference is that today, with social media, we can extend the range of the damage. It’s become commonplace to hear about a young person committing suicide after a rumor gets spread about the person across social media. It doesn’t matter whether the message was true or not, the fact that it got spread around so widely and so quickly damaged the person’s self-image. In their embarrassment they decide to kill themselves. This should be a warning about the power of the tongue. 

I would be remiss, if I didn’t address the power of gossip. When it comes to gossip, I expect we’re all sinners. It’s difficult not to share that juicy tidbit that comes our way. It might start innocently, but you know how things can quickly get out of hand? One of the best illustrations of how gossip works is the game of telephone. You gather in a circle, and the first person tells a “secret.” Maybe it’s as innocent as Joe’s cousin Jennifer was in town visiting him, but by the end of the game Joe is having an affair with a woman named Jennifer and is about to divorce his wife, leaving her and their three kids destitute. You can see how dangerous the tongue can be. It may be small, but it can set a forest ablaze. 

The Wisdom of Sirach, one of the wisdom books that didn’t make it into the canon, offers a helpful word of advice that parallels what James has to say. In fact, I would think James knew this saying: 
If you blow on a spark, it will glow; if you spit on it, it will be put out; yet both come out of your mouth. Curse the gossips and the double-tongued, for they destroy the peace of many. (Sirach 28:12-13).
Paul listed gossiping among the expressions of wickedness present in the world, along with murder, envy, and strife, among other things (Rom. 1:29). Gossip, it would seem, is serious sin!

I think this word from James speaks powerfully to our own time. Sparks have been fanned into forest fires. With the same tongue that we bless God, we may find ourselves cursing our neighbor whom God created.

Here is where James starts to meddle. I think he has put his finger on one of the great dangers of our day. That danger is the growing belief that people have the right to say whatever they please, whenever they please, and wherever they please. A certain crassness dominates many conversations in our day. It could be in personal conversations, but it might also be shared on Twitter or Facebook. This crassness can destroy individual lives and communities. Defenders of this form of freedom of speech say it’s a reaction to political correctness. People are tired of being told what they can and cannot say. But, as Paul puts it: “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up” (1 Cor. 10:23). I think James would agree.

Unfortunately, this spirit of crassness starts in the President’s office, and has permeated the country. The President didn’t start it, but he has embodied it, and modeled it for others. The spark has been lit and the fire is burning. With a political season now underway, we will see much more of it. 

As we consider the state of our conversations, James leaves us with a warning: 
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.
Even though we can tame animals, “no one can tame the tongue,” which is a “restless evil, full of deadly poison.” But, as James wrote in chapter 1, if we are to be truly religious, we will need to learn to bridle the tongue. 

The choice, it seems, is ours. While the tongue is a “restless evil” that we use to bless God and curse our neighbors, this is not how it should be. As James puts it, a fig tree can’t produce both olives and figs. A spring can’t produce both clear and brackish water. Therefore, it’s inappropriate to sing praises to God and then curse our neighbor.   

So, what is the cure? In the context of James, the cure is to  “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” James asks us to examine our use of the tongue in light of the Royal Law. If we can bridle the tongue, we will have moved a long way toward a “religion that is pure and undefiled before God.”

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost 17B
September 16, 2018


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