Beware the Fiery Tongue -- A Sermon

James 3:1-18

The song “Pass It On” starts with the words: “It only takes a spark to get a fire going.” If that fire is the love of God that warms the hearts of everyone who experiences God’s presence, then it’s  a good thing to pass on to others.  But not every fire is the same. There are also fires that can be very destructive, so you have to be careful with those kinds of sparks.  

Early in life I learned how destructive fires can be.  When we lived in Mount Shasta, in northern California, we lived next door to a Fire Control Officer for the Forest Service.  When he was home, Mr. Gray’s green Forest Service pickup sat parked at the curb, ready to go at a moment’s notice.  We knew when there was a fire, because all the green pickups in the neighborhood headed out at the same time. Most of the fires occurred some distance from town, but on at least one occasion a fire started up on the mountain behind us, and we watched the flames lick the evening sky, reminding us of the destructive power of fire.  

I learned early on that when the conditions were just right – it doesn’t take much to get a fire burning.  During hot, dry spells, a smoldering campfire or an errantly thrown cigarette butt can light up the forest with flame.  And, once the fire starts, it can spread quickly, especially if there’s a hefty breeze.  Besides, these fires can be very difficult to put out.   

As Smokey the Bear reminds us –  “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires?”  When you watched those ads, did you take the message to heart?     

While I first learned about the destructive power of fire living in Mount Shasta, these lessons were reinforced after I moved to Southern California as an adult.  That region is a mountainous coastal desert.  The hillsides are covered with chaparral, a shrub that dries out in the summer and burns easily.  And when lit, especially if there’s a Santa Ana Wind alert, those fires can rush down on highly populated areas destroying everything in their path. 

If you’ve never experienced a Santa Ana wind, they’re a powerful force of nature.  Starting out in the desert, the winds sweep up and over the mountains, gaining power and speed as they go.  They can reach upwards of 50 to 70 miles per hour, and they keep on moving until they reach the ocean.  So you can image what happens when a fire gets out of control!   

Now, we never had to evacuate, but I can remember seeing large plumes of smoke rise into the sky during the day.  Then during the evening hours those plumes were replaced by the red and orange glow of the fire as it moved down the mountainside.  Yes, fire is a dangerous force of nature! 

Many fires start accidently.  Somebody leaves behind a campfire, they think is dead, but they leave behind a few embers that come alive with a warm afternoon breeze.  Before too long these embers have ignited some dry grass and plants nearby, and from there sparks and embers jump up into the trees, and then spread from tree to tree.  Before long, a massive fire has taken shape.  

As bad as these fires are, even worse are those that are purposely started.  There are people we call arsonists, who get a kick out of starting fires. And they love to start fires on hot summer days, when the Santa Anas are ready to kick up. James warns us to beware of the fiery tongue.  So, if you think you want to be a leader or a teacher, be careful, because what you say can be dangerous.  You have to be mature and you have to control the tongue if God is going to use you effectively.

Why is this? Remember that rhyme: sticks and stones, break bones, but names don’t hurt.  That’s not true.  Words do hurt and they can destroy.  Maybe that’s the point of the Proverb that suggests that if you remain quiet, people will think you wise, but if you love to talk you may reveal yourself to be a fool.  I suppose that’s a warning that politicians might heed as well! 

James uses a number of metaphors and images to get his point across.  He talks about how a bridle controls the tongue and by controlling the tongue, controls the horse’s body.  Now, I’m not a horse person, so I don’t know if this is true, but it seems to make sense!   

Whether our words are intentional or inadvertent, James suggests that the tongue is difficult to control and words can be a source of great evil.  Consider for a moment that bit of gossip that gets passed around.  It seems innocent enough – did you see Suzy?  She went to that hotel with Joe.  What do you think they were doing?  Maybe they were going to a business meeting, but inquiring minds can blow an innocent event into a tawdry affair.  Or what about that word said in jest?  “Oh, I was “just teasing.”  Maybe you were just “kidding around,” but your joke has destroyed a person’s self-esteem or undermines their credibility.

Words and images can also stir up acts of violence – if the conditions are ripe.  Did you hear about that video on YouTube that insulted Islam and Muhammad?  Although violence can’t be justified, it’s clear that the people who created this “film” were hoping to provoke such an incident.  They were, you might say, arsonists.  So were the people who decided to broadcast these images on an Egyptian TV station.  They weren’t just trying to stir up anger at the United States, they seem intent on destabilizing their own government.  Two parties essentially collaborating to wreak havoc in the land.  Yes, there are lots of arsonists in our midst.  As a result of these “words” and images, four members of the American diplomatic mission in Libya lost their lives, including an Ambassador who had devoted his life to helping people in that region. But others have died as well, and much property has been destroyed.  Words have great power to destroy.    

Now here in the United States the repugnant words that stirred the anger are protected by Constitutional guarantees of free speech.  In this country, you can say, pretty much anything you want, but, as Paul said, even though all things are lawful, not all things are beneficial. 

So, what is true on the hillsides of LA or the streets of Cairo, is also true in the church.  Words spoken carelessly or in anger can divide and destroy the work of God in that place.  So, James says to us – be careful about what you say. 

Not only that, but as Jesus said, it’s not what goes into a person’s mouth that defiles, but rather what comes out of the mouth.  James uses a different set of metaphors.  He reminds us that fig trees don’t produce olives and grapevines, figs; fresh water doesn’t flow from a salt water spring.  If destructive words come forth from our mouths, then these words likely represent who we are on the inside.  

Although the lectionary reading from James ends with verse 12, our reading continued on to the end of the chapter because the Worship Committee wanted to observe the International Day of Peace, which occurs on Friday.  They wanted to emphasize a message of peace, and interestingly enough, that’s the message that brings this chapter to a close.  

In verse 13, James asks us:   “Are any of you wise and understanding?”  If so, then “show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom.”   And what is wisdom’s lifestyle?  According to James, such a life is defined by purity, peacefulness, gentleness, obedience, mercy, fairness, and genuineness, and in closing he writes:   “Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts” (vs. 18 CEB).

For James, the tongue has the power to praise God and the power to curse.  It would seem that peace in the family, in the church, in the community, in the nation, and in the world, depends on having the wisdom to tame the fiery tongue.  How then can we sow seeds of justice through our peaceful acts?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
16th Sunday after Pentecost
September 16, 2012     


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