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Pentecost 16B Sermon
James 3: 1-12
September 12, 2021

Sermon Archives


James 3:1-12

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.

May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us, in the name of his risen son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.

Have you ever found yourself sitting at an athletic contest when the ref makes a bad call or an athlete an error in judgement and suddenly before you know it you are calling people you don’t even know names that you wouldn’t want to be called yourself! Or maybe you don’t exactly agree with the direction that your company is going, so you sit at the computer or your smart phone and say a few choice words about the company to all of your friends on social media. Or maybe you hear some bad news about someone and you take the time to pile onto their bad character - or you hear good news about someone and you cannot help but question why something so good could happen to someone like that. As a pastor, I know that I am judged with greater strictness when it comes to my speech. I am asked speak blessings to people all the time, through prayer and other conversations. I know the power of the tongue … and yet I am just as apt as anyone else to let my tongue become unbridled at times.

I usually try to be respectful in my language about other people … the one place where that gets set aside is when I am by myself, driving in my car – maybe you can identify with me on that. I admit to you that I call those nameless drivers all sorts of things when they get too close, drive too slow, cut me off, or don’t get moving when a light turns green. Could it be that what is written in this passage is true … just as the same well cannot produce both fresh and brackish water, from the same mouth should not come both blessings and curses? When we get used to cursing, it comes much more easily … even when we are NOT in our cars by ourselves!

There are many metaphors for the tongue in this passage – the author of the letter to James talks about the perfect person as if they have a bridle in their mouth guiding their whole bodies. He also likens the tongue to a rudder on a ship, small and yet able to direct the ship in where it is going. Finally, he says that the tongue is a fire which can set the while forest ablaze. This picture language helps us to understand the importance of our words. When people say, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me,” it is really a way to deal with the hurt that comes when words are directed toward someone in a hurtful manner.

So what are we to do? We have the reality that all of us Christians are judged with a higher than normal standard, even those who are not teachers or preachers. We also live in the reality that all of us make mistakes, as the author reminds us. On top of that, many of us are either active on social media or we see in the press the social media posts of people who seem to use those platforms to start forest fires, to continue the metaphor of the reading. With millions of people reading or hearing the name calling or nasty comments, the fire is ablaze and spreads quickly across our country and even our world. And as we witness real-life wildfires in the western US today, we know how destructive these can be.

This is so vital because it is a huge part of our lives. Words are more powerful than sticks or stones, and in using them to attack, we often can do irepairable harm to a person or a relationship. Martin Luther himself said that the 8th commandment – you shall not bear false witness against you neighbor – does not only mean that we should not lie or spread rumors about people, but that we should, “come to our neighbors’ defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” That is not always easy, to be sure! That is why we say that none of us is perfect – who among us has kept that commandment perfectly? I know I have not always interpreted the actions of those around me in the best possible light, and I am sure that you could confess the same thing as well.

Sometimes that is difficult, especially when I have juicy news to share, or something has happened that I have a particularly difficult time accepting. We also deal with situations where those around us say some pretty mean-spirited things and we cannot help but want to join in the fight. If we can just keep from saying anything, often that helps us to diffuse a situation. The problem is, sometimes when we say nothing, we give the impression that we agree with whatever is being proclaimed. How can we not give that impression while also not joining in an argument where we find ourselves setting the proverbial forest on fire with our tongues?

Sometimes that is a difficult thing to do. For me, it usually involves doing a lot of listening. Some of the most effective pastoral care moments in my life have been when I just sat with someone and listened. I remember preparing to officiate at a funeral for a Linden Lutheran Church member who I had known since I was a kid. In the process I was meeting with this person’s son. After about an hour he said that he really felt better about everything, the upcoming funeral and his mother’s death and he thanked me. I said to him, “You know, I probably said 20 words the whole time.” We both realized that it was a time to bridle the tongue and open the ears and listen. Instead of trying to interpret and give our slant on things that are not easy to comprehend - like the death of a loved one - put the bit in your mouth and just listen. And then, as I do in most of my pastoral care times, when I open my mouth it is to pray … to lift up all of the concerns that I just heard and lay them before God, without judgement or prejudice. And that is what you can do, Christian brothers and sisters - use your tongues in prayer!
Our words are important. If we think of our mouths as a spring putting forth water, maybe we can consider how what we say can be construed as fresh, sweet water, or brackish, not worth tasting. Whatever we say may be blessing or curse to people. It begins with the language we use when we are by ourselves, like when I am driving in the car. If I can build good habits there in relation to other drivers around me, then I can build good habits in my personal interactions and on social media. Our words have the potential to be powerful in such good ways - they can speak life, hope strength, compassion, blessings and love.
May we bless the Lord always as we speak to and about our neighbors, doing so in the kindest way possible. May it be so, in the name of Christ; Amen.