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.
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
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