September 23, 2012
William G. Carter
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.
This is a Bible text that can change a room. As soon as it is lifted into the sanctuary air, it addresses us like few other passages of scripture. Wise old James speaks to the church. He says, “Be careful what you say.” He looks over his shoulder to the preachers and says, “Not many of you should teach the faith, my brothers and sisters, because as soon as you open your mouth, you are prone to make many mistakes.” Then he looks back at the rest of us, and warns us about the destructive power of words.
Anybody know what he is talking about? A friend reminds me of the moment that most of us have known. You are thick in a discussion with somebody you love, and you blurt something out. And you want to reach out with your hand and grab the words that just escaped your mouth, and try to push them back in.
“The tongue is a restless evil,” says Brother James. “It is 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.” So today, in the hope that we can be a well-spoken church, let’s have a conversation about our words.
First of all, the syllables we speak shall reveal who we are. If we are bitter and brackish, so shall be our words. There is a consistency between who we really are and what we say. Peevish is peevish. Generosity reveals generosity. Those who are being saved by God will neither be small-minded or forked-tongued. God’s power at work within us sets us free from speaking as if God is mean and judgmental.
In this regard, James draws upon the words of Jesus, from the 12th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew:
Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.
The good person brings good things out of a good treasure,
and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure.
I tell you, on the day of judgment
you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter;
for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
To say it simply, we need to watch what we say – and when we speak, let our words reflect the good work that God seeks to do within us.
Craig Barnes is a pastor in Pittsburgh. He says he has lost count of all the times when his church members say, “I’m sorry I got into an argument at the committee meeting last night, but I have a short temper. That’s just the way I am.”
Craig says he always replies, “No, that’s not who you are. You are who God made you to be, and God didn’t make you angry.” For the scriptures are clear: “We are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
We are created for good works. Brother James says that over and over again.
That leads me to the second thing I want to say: the first good work is the spoken word. In the Hebrew language, the word is considered the deed. Speaking is something that we do, a primary expression of what we believe and what we commit ourselves to do.
· The emergency room nurse looked into the eyes of a frightened woman. She said, “I will get you the care that you need,” and she was good for her word.
· The math teacher nodded toward the struggling student, and said, “If you drop by after the final bell, I will help you figure out what is confusing you.” Bell rings, student returns, teacher is waiting for him.
· A minister stands before two people who love one another, who can’t wait to enjoy life together even though there are moments when they drive one another crazy. She asks them a question, waits for an answer, and for the last nine years I have pondered the meaning of those two little words, “I do.”
Our words matter because our words are our deeds. We are created to make promises and keep them, to describe the world truthfully, to welcome the voices that once were silenced – and most of all, to say what we know about God.
After all, and this is the third thing I want to say: the God of the Bible is a God who speaks, a God who is known by what God says: “Let there be light! Let there be life! Let my Word take flesh and save the world!” God says it – and God does it. The Christ-follower can never separate the Word and Deed.
When I’m done with this sermon, we will stand and sing our faith: “I believe in God, Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord . . .” Over the centuries, people have fought over those words, just to get them right. All of our big theological statements took time to be spoken, because they are important and because they point to what we believe to be true.
Say it’s time for the creed. If you ever stand in church and discover your tongue has gone on autopilot, stop and pull it out of gear. Never speak the ancient words as if they lost their meaning. Speak them as if they are written in blood, as if they matter more than everything else. Take a deep, deep breath and exhale the truth along with all of the other believers. God gave you that breath, to start with, God formed the thought in the church’s brain, and God listens for the church to speak as it receives. Worship words are just that important!
And since they are important, they are the first to be neglected. That brings me to one more point that I want to say – how tragic it is when we mistreat our words!
For a brief time before I was a pastor, I was a church custodian. It was the summer of 1984, in the little town of Nichols, New York. They wanted me to preach for four weeks in a row, and they wanted me to tidy up after I was done. It was good experience: a little church with big expectations. I said, “Do you have a job description?” They gave me a job description. I took one look at the first item and I was amazed. I pointed to it and asked, “Do you really want me to do this?” Oh yes, was the answer. That is the Number One chore.
So I shrugged and did as they requested. On Sunday morning, I preached the sermon. I did the best I could. On Monday morning, I went back, unlocked the door, reached into a closet, pulled out a large push broom, went into the sanctuary, and swept up all the used words.
There were all kinds of words. Old words like “theology.” Young words like “balloon.” Tired words like “righteousness.” Busy words like “grace.” All of those words were left behind. After everybody departed the church, they discarded a pile of used words. On Sunday morning, I put them into the air. On Monday, I returned to sweep up all the words that had fallen flat on the floor. It was discouraging.
Ever since I have wondered – how is it that so many of our words run out of helium? They simply flutter down and flop on the floor. I have a theory, that maybe we simply talk too much – that we have one tongue and two ears, but many of us speak twice as much as we listen.
To sum it up, finally, we have to mind our mouths, all of us, and be stewards of what we say. We live in a yackety time, when people post every passing thought as their Facebook status, when television advertisements are four decibels louder than the shows they are funding, when words constantly bombard us until they have no meaning.
Might I suggest, as a Sabbath discipline, that we fast from all the extra words? If you must watch football this afternoon, turn off the sound and enjoy the game. Resist checking your e-mail until sundown. Give your eyes and ears and tongues a rest. Let the Words of God be sufficient to sustain you. If we must speak, speak as God speaks, with syllables as these: You belong to me – Blessed are the poor – I have loved you with an everlasting love - Take care of the widow and the orphan – and perhaps my favorite of all God’s sayings, The Table is set and all is ready.
“Be slow to speak,” says Brother James. It’s good advice – especially so we come to treasure the words that really matter. You may remember a line attributed to either George Eliot, Abraham Lincoln, or that great theologian Mark Twain, “It is better to keep silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” Actually all of them borrow it from the book of Proverbs: “Fools who are silent are considered wise; when they close their lips, they are deemed intelligent.” (17:28)
Did you hear about the Christian monk who lived in the Egyptian desert? He survived in the sands by living carefully, depending on the mercy of others, and devoting his life to prayer. He never spoke. When friends took him food, they would approach him with the basket. Brother Agathos looked up, smiled, and nodded. As they set the meal before him, he would spit a small stone out of his mouth.
The friends took him food once a week. Every time it happens – they bring the basket, he looks up and smiles, they set the food before him, and he spits a small stone out of his mouth.
One time, one of the friends simply had to ask, “What are you doing?”
Brother Agathos said, “Learning to be silent.”
Ah – when somebody like that speaks, I will listen. The well-spoken church knows how to listen. It also knows how to sing.