September 16, 2018
My mom used to say, “Watch your tongue, young lady; if you aren’t careful, you might cut your lip on it.” She understood, even if I didn’t, how much damage the words coming out of our mouths can cause. And she knew, even if I didn’t, that the person most damaged by my sharp tongue might be … me.
I knew that “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” was a lie. I’d walked to school listening to a classmate chant, “Your daddy’s in jail, your daddy’s in jail” from across the street for four long blocks, and I’d heard that same chant on the way home for those same four long blocks. I’d suffered through my third grade teacher holding my paper up in front of the class to tell everyone in the room how not to do their math homework. I knew how much words could hurt.
In today’s passage from the book of James, he dives a little deeper into the idea we heard a couple of weeks ago: “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19) When we let our tongues run ahead of us, it can cause a lot of trouble.
James has been teaching us how to work our faith in order to develop a faith that works. Just before today’s reading, he writes, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” (James 2:26)
Our faith shows up in our work, what we do, how we live. But work without faith is just work. When our work is an expression of our faith, we grow in maturity, our words align with our actions, and our actions align with God’s will.
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 mouths 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. – James 3:1-12
Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis, MN opens each school year with a convocation for the teachers. Unlike public school teacher workshops, this is a worship service, and for many years, it took place in a nearby church. I remember well my first year of teaching at Minnehaha, and finding my place in that sanctuary for the first time, a sanctuary that looks a lot like this one.
We sang hymns together, prayed, listened to the President of the school speak, and when I was introduced with the other new teachers, the rest of the faculty raised their hands toward us to offer a prayer of blessing. Then we celebrated Communion together. It was an amazing experience. I’d been a public school teacher for twelve years, and this was the first time my faith connected to my work in such an overt way.
Every year, I looked forward to that opening faculty worship. And every year, I heard one of my colleagues read this passage from James, warning us that, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”
Yet, if we read beyond that first verse, it becomes clear pretty quickly that James is not giving a convocation speech at the beginning of a new school year. He’s talking about working our faith so that our faith can really work.
The book of James may be written in the form of a letter, but it has more in common with the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament than it does with the other epistles in the New Testament. The writers of books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and Job offered us instruction on how to live wisely, so that our lives bring glory to God. This passage about taming the tongue is a perfect example of wisdom writing.
James uses a series of metaphors to describe how our speech impacts the world around us. The tongue is like a bit in a horse’s mouth, or the small rudder of a large ship – a small thing that directs something much larger than itself.
When I was little, I spent many summers on my aunt and uncle’s farm in western Kansas. My cousin Max loved to torment us “city cousins” when we were there. Once when I was watching him milk a cow, he tried to convince me that the milk was coming too slowly, and if I would just stand behind the cow and pull its tail, the milk would come out a lot faster. I didn’t fall for that one.
But I wasn’t as smart when it came to riding a horse. I didn’t know how to use the reins, and Max was no help. I ended up out in the middle of a pasture, on a horse that wouldn’t move. I sat there helplessly while the horse just grazed. Max’s brother, Steve, finally came out and rescued me.
I didn’t even know there was something called a “bit” in the horse’s mouth, and I certainly didn’t know how to use the reins to apply and release pressure on that bit to communicate to the horse what I wanted it to do. But James may have realized there would be people like me in his audience, so he uses another metaphor: the rudder of a ship. And in case we don’t know anything about boats, he adds one more: fire.
Fire is a great example of what can happen when an unruly tongue goes unchecked. Remember those Smoky the Bear commercials that show someone flicking a lit cigarette out of a car window? Next thing you know, there’s a raging forest fire destroying acres of timber and sending forest animals running for their lives. “Remember,” Smoke tells us, “only you can prevent forest fires.”
In recent years, wildfires have ravaged parts of the West Coast, and have spread into developed areas, destroying people’s homes. We understand the damage a fire can do.
The words we speak can do just as much damage, James tells us. Especially when those words are harsh, or spoken to discredit someone, or spoken in anger. Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor calls this kind of talk, “Tongue toxin.” James points out that it’s difficult to control: “No one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
We see it often on social media. It’s just as hard to tame the thumbs as it is the tongue, apparently. And once those words are out there in the ether, there is no way to retrieve them. The damage is done.
It’s particularly disheartening to see and hear toxic comments from those who claim to follow Jesus. James 3:10-11 tells us how it makes no sense for blessing God and cursing our neighbor to come from the same mouth – it’s like salt water and fresh water coming from the same spring, or olives coming from fig trees. It can’t happen. Because when we curse others, we are cursing God.
You see, when we let hateful speech roll off our tongues, and then turn around and say, “Praise the Lord,” James is telling us that one of those things can’t be true. We can’t really mean “praise the Lord” if we’re saying hateful things with the same mouth. When we do that, we show the world that we are hypocrites, not mature Christians.
And in case you hadn’t heard, the number one criticism leveled at the church by young adults these days is the charge of hypocrisy. A growing number of people between the ages of 18 and 35 find the faith language of Christians to be hollow and empty, because they hear the kind of language we use when we aren’t in church, and it doesn’t match. I’m not talking about using profanity or vulgar talk, though these certainly damage our witness, too. I’m talking about putting down another denomination, or trying to discredit the work of a church across town. Instead of praising God for another congregation’s growth, criticizing that congregation’s methods or leaders. Are we not all part of the same Body of Christ? Shouldn’t we be working together in harmony to share the Gospel? How easy it is to dismiss our message, when we act like hypocrites! Of course, we act like hypocrites because, as we all have to confess at some point, that’s exactly what we are.
Rich Mullins, the Christian musician best known for his worship songs “Awesome God” and “Step by Step,” once said,
“I never understood why going to church made you a hypocrite either, because nobody goes to church because they’re perfect. If you’ve got it all together, you don’t need to go. You can go jogging with all the other perfect people on Sunday morning Every time you go to church, you’re confessing again to yourself, to your family, to the people you pass on the way there, to the people who will greet you there, that you don’t have it all together. And that you need their support. You need their direction. You need some accountability, you need some help.”
We all need some help. We all make mistakes, James tells us. We all need God’s grace. And we all need each other to keep us working our faith, so our faith will grow to full maturity.
In Mark 7:14-23, Jesus describes the things that defile us as what comes out of our mouths, not what goes in, because what comes out of our mouths reveals what is in our hearts. James reiterates this at the end of this passage. With the same mouth that we use to bless the Lord and Father, 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. Just as a fig tree can’t produce olives and the same spring can’t produce both salt water and fresh, what we say and what we do needs to align with who we are, and whose we are.
Jesus died to save us from our sins. He died to free us from speaking evil about our brothers and sisters. He rose again to conquer all death – physical and spiritual – to save us from our own toxic tongues. And here’s the Good News: whatever damage we’ve caused, whatever hurt we have inflicted, forgiveness and mercy are available to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Repent, and believe the Gospel. In Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven. In Jesus Christ, my sins are forgiven.
It’s been more than five years since I taught at Minnehaha Academy, but I can still recite the mission, which is “to integrate Christian faith with learning.” That’s exactly what James is asking us to do: integrate our Christian faith into the work we do everyday, so that there is not a whiff of hypocrisy, but the blessing we offer to God lines up perfectly with the blessing we offer to others through our faith that works, as we work our faith.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4, 65.
 Rich Mullins, Anderson Indiana, November 16, 1995