Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
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.
Throughout the powerpoint and on the bulletins you have if you are in person, you can see some little bubbles. Tasha would you pull up the bubbles again? Does anyone know what these bubbles are? Where have you seen them? That’s right. They are speech bubbles like in comic books and comic strips in the newspaper. I like how the shape of the bubble can tell you something about how you are supposed to read the words in it. When you see a bubble that is kind of fluffy, like a sheep, do you know what that means? Yes. It is words someone is thinking, not saying aloud. If it’s a regular old round bubble, I think it’s regular talking. I looked at one of the comic books I have at home and I saw that whenever someone is supposed to be shouting, the bubble gets kind of spikey and wild looking. Look at that one with the square edges and the lightning bolt leading down to the speaker. What kind of words do you think are in that one? Maybe the speaker is a robot? Or maybe they are mad, so the bubble gets sharp?
When I read today’s scripture, which is all about the ways that words from our mouths affect and reflect our hearts, I thought I about these little bubbles and how they help us remember the feelings within and behind the words we say. I bet you have been told, as I have been told, that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but word will never hurt me.” I bet you have also learned, like the author of James had also learned, that that’s not exactly true. Words hurt. We know that. We feel it when cruel words are spewn at us and we feel it when we use cruel words to hurt others. Words do harm. We know that. God even seems to know that. There is a whole commandment about not using words to harm someone (the one about bearing false witness). While, it’s true that sometimes ignoring hateful words can help convince someone that it’s not worth saying them, that doesn’t mean that words don’t hurt. We know that and James knows that. Scholar Cain Hope Felder reminds us that the author of James, who wants to teach Christians how to live a life where their faith is reflected in their actions, including their speech, also wants them to remember that their words have power in the world. People who claim to follow Jesus should use that power wisely.
In the first verse of today’s reading, the author lays out the stakes clearly by saying most of the people of that community probably aren’t up to the job of teaching because most people can’t live up to the standards of care and truth in speech that a teacher of Christ must uphold. Nevertheless, the members of the community should try to live up to those standards anyway. In a commentary on this passage, the scholar J.B. Blue, notes that teachers, as public figures who teach in public spaces, are given a particularly clear warning on the power of their words. Some positions in a community, like teacher, nurse, firefighter, politician, come with a measure of authority attached to them. Blue reminds us that some of that authority is explicit, well-defined, and clear. These figures can offer access to learning, dole out discipline, assure basic public safety. And, some of the authority is implicit, indirect, and often unstated. The words of these kind of public figures, the teachers, the preachers, the politicians, can change lives, in good and bad ways.
On September 11th of 2001, I have a clear memory of watching Katie Couric, then on NBC’s morning show, trying to talk the country though what was happening. She was on the ground somewhere in New York city. She talked to a woman who was looking, desperately, for a loved one. At that moment, Couric knew that the authority she had been granted as a trusted reporter with a big audience meant that she could try to help. She made sure the woman was heard, reiterated the details of who she was looking for, and gave out a contact so she could share any leads with this woman. On that day, I watched one woman use her authority and her words to help a stranger on what was probably among the worst days of her life. Not everyone made the same choice or would make the same choice in the coming days and weeks. In can be tempting to use the authority of a public persona to harm. In a commentary, J.B. Blue states it plainly: “This authority is a breeding ground for sin.” James tells us that we cultivate a faith that helps us use that authority to work towards justice.
Anybody who has ever tried to train a horse to use a bridle knows it is a complicated, slobbery, and sometimes bitey task. Anyone who has ever had the rudder not work quite right on their boat knows how vital that small piece of wood or plastic is to the safety of those in and around the boat. A bit... a rudder... something as small as the tongues in our mouths can completely reroute us from or towards our ultimate destination. Part of cultivating a Christian faith, according to James, is immersing ourselves in God’s wisdom to make sure that our words are guided by God and not the forces of destruction that can bloom around and inside us.
I know someone who tells heartbreaking and completely believable stories about a childhood surrounded by people who were devout Christians who said they loved the Lord and, yet, would never let her eat at their table because they were white and she was not. That sure sounds like “blessing the Lord” with one side of your mouth and “cursing those who are made in the likeness of God” with the other. I, myself, have said words that harmed my relationships with people I serve because I chose a measure of pettiness over generosity. I bet you have your own memories of times when firey words you have said or have been said to you scorched relationships, scalded communities, and burned bridges that were still sorely needed to connect people to one another and to God. The tongue is a fire. And, that fire must be tended or it will destroy.
If I may return to comic books for a moment, as I read this scripture, I was reminded of a couple panels written by G. Willow Wilson in a book where a new character, Kamala Khan, assumes the role of Ms. Marvel. As Kamala is trying to figure out how to be the best version of a hero she can be and committing to training so she can be of service in her community, she says “Good is not a thing you are. It’s a thing you do.” I think James is saying something similar. Your faith is not just ideas in your head. It needs to come to life in your actions and in your words, or maybe even your lack of words. Margaret Aymer, in her commentary on the text, reminds us that God moves in the silence, too. May we be on guard against speech that burns. And, cultivate speech and silence that connects.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Margaret Aymer: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-24-2/commentary-on-james-31-12-3
J. B. Blue, "Proper 19 ," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni- Wilhelm, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
Cain Hope Felder, introduction to the book of James, The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson, artist Adrian Alphona, color artist Ian Herring, letterer VC's Joe Caramagna. New York, NY: Marvel Worldwide, Inc., a subsidiary of Marvel Entertainment, LLC, 2014.
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.