Sunday, August 30, 2015


Words: Hawk Nelson

James 3: 1-12
August 30, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

This is the third week of our series on the Book of James, and for two weeks we’ve had our attention focused on right action –first, with being doers of the word, and not merely hearers, then with the powerful statement on good works of hospitality and justice, and how actions speak louder than words. Those were hard texts to hear, and to wrestle with. Many people are much more comfortable with an easier kind of faith, the kind that lets us check the boxes on a list of beliefs but doesn’t ask much of us in our day to day lives.

You will be glad to know that the text this week does NOT afflict us with any emphasis on our actions and deeds, no, not at all. It DOES afflict us with something just as challenging –the way we use our words.

Many of us have heard the saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Anyone who has ever been called a name knows that is simply not true.

This scripture calls our attention to the power of words, and how they can wound, cause trouble, or even destruction. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in James, chapter 3, verses 1-12

My brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers, because we know that we teachers will be judged more strictly. We all make mistakes often, but those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity.
Like a bridled horse, they can control themselves entirely. When we bridle horses and put bits in their mouths to lead them wherever we want, we can control their whole bodies.
Consider ships: They are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder.
In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly.
Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of hell.
People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way! Both fresh water and salt water don’t come from the same spring, do they? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree produce olives? Can a grapevine produce figs? Of course not, and fresh water doesn’t flow from a saltwater spring either.

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

At first blush, when we hear these words from James, we may want to argue with them.
O, come on, James! First you tell us to be good listeners, and then to show that we were listening by getting busy doing good works. Now you turn around and scold us for our words.

This is strong talk about our talk.
Nearly everyone who can talk has at least once stuck their foot in their mouth. I used to get in trouble in school all the time, for talking. People said I was mouthy. One of the kids shared last week that he gets in trouble for talking in school but it is usually because someone else is talking to him. With me, it was usually me doing the talking. Sometimes it was just news to share, sometimes it was telling someone the answer. Or I would come up with something witty, that I couldn’t keep to myself. I cracked me up! But my teachers didn’t appreciate my humor. So I would have to write one hundred times, “I will not talk in class.”

I still get in trouble sometimes, when I engage my mouth before my brain is in gear.
Have you ever created trouble by something you said? I don’t mean just an embarrassment. I mean real trouble, like somebody getting written up at work, or two people getting in an argument because of what you said, or being accused of slander. There are plenty of examples of this in the news, especially if you count the magazines at the Kroger checkout line as news. Certain politicians, or aspiring politicians come to mind, but that is too easy.

This week I ran across a chilling story about a young man who died by suicide, and when his death was investigated, it was discovered that his girlfriend had been urging him to do it. The story is tragic, and it must be devastating for the parents of that boy to learn that someone had encouraged him toward self-destruction, sending him text messages saying, “Do it. It’s now or never.”[1]

Words are powerful.
Anyone who has been verbally abused, or bullied, can testify to that truth.
Anyone who has been a victim of malicious gossip would agree.
So why do we have such trouble taming the tongue? It’s so small – like the bit in a bridle or the rudder on a ship, but it can do big damage. I don’t think James is talking about embarrassing slips of the tongue. I don’t think he is addressing the casual remark that hurts someone’s feelings. It would appear that his lecture is about the kind of mean-spirited talk that damages reputations, undermines leadership, or leads students astray.

Another item in the news this week was about teachers being investigated and sometimes fired for assigning certain books to read, or addressing certain issues, books or issues that made students uncomfortable. These stories were not about fourth graders, or even high schoolers, but about college professors who have been asked to avoid certain topics or works of literature, or even certain words. Apparently some people want to go to college for four years without ever learning any new ideas, or having their opinions challenged.

That’s not what James is getting at, when he talks about the special responsibility of teachers. He’s gesturing to the singular influence that teachers have, especially Christian teachers and leaders. As Christians, we are responsible to a higher standard of speech, especially those of us called to more mouthy vocations. As Christian community, we are called to a higher standard of care for one another –prayer concerns, for example, should not be occasion for snooping, but for sincere interest and concern, and response.

But sometimes, it is hard to know if we are concerned or merely curious.
And it is hard to know when it is okay to share information about other people.
The line between sharing and gossip is sometimes hard to see.

An interesting little word, gossip – did you know that it’s original meaning was religious?
Yep – “gossip” was originally “godsib” – from the words God, and sib, meaning relative.
Godsib, or gossip, was “a person related to one in God.” Like godparents. Or a brother or sister in Christ. God-sib. It was someone close enough to share your life, close enough to talk to. Later, the term was used for the women who attended a woman giving birth.

They would gather to deliver the baby, and kick the men out of the house. It was women talking, so, unfortunately, because of that, gossip eventually got the connotation of “idle or malicious talk.”

Idle gossip, backbiting, and unkind talk is lethal to a church. But we all know how important talk is in the church. We are all about words – talk and song and prayer are central to our worship. The author of James was a man of letters – a man of words, a teacher – an educated person who wrote in elegant Greek, and his background in Hebrew scripture is abundantly clear in this reading.

In Jewish law and tradition, the law we read in Leviticus, it is a violation to speak about another person – to gossip. It is a sin to have an “evil tongue” – to speak ill of another person, even if it is true. In Jewish law and tradition, the person who listens to gossip is just as bad as the person who speaks it. It has been said that disparaging speech kills three: the person who speaks it, the person who hears it, and the person about whom it is told. In fact, it is regarded as wrong to speak of another person, even if it is not hurtful, even if it is not a secret, even if the person would tell whatever it is if asked.

But there are exceptions, and here is where the original meaning come in. The exceptions are in cases where the sharing is for the other’s protection, to keep them from being injured, or cheated.[2] If, for example, someone is entering into a business partnership, or planning a marriage, and you know the prospective partner is untrustworthy or dishonest, you are obliged to share that information. When you know of a need, and you share it with a trusted person, a person who can help, you are doing right to share that information.

That’s when it is no longer “gossip” but “God-sib” –an act of community and care, the sharing of a beloved brother or sister. That’s what James calls us – MY brothers and sisters.

Words are powerful.
They name things.
They create worlds.
They are more than just sounds –
words perform, promise, move, heal and comfort.
Words said at a wedding seal the covenant promises of a couple’s love.
Words said at the font bring us into the family of God.
Words said at the table connect us with the communion of all the saints.
Words bring us into relationship – they make us brothers and sisters in Christ.
When our words are those of “God-sibs” they have the power to heal and to uphold.

One writer says that we are stewards of our words – we are entrusted with the use and care of every word we say. She says, “Our task as stewards of the word begins and ends in love. Loving language means cherishing it for its beauty, precision, power to enhance understanding, power to name, power to heal. And it means using words as instruments of love.”[3]

Jesus said, “It is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” We are blessed beyond telling by the Word of God, the Word made flesh, in whom we live and move and have our being. So let your words reflect the abundance of your heart. In this family of faith, let us be God-sibs, who find the words of abundance, warm them in our hands, and offer them to God and to one another, in love.

[2] Wenig, Margaret Moers. “Sacred Speech — Sacred Communities” The Reconstructionist, Fall 2002, pp 41-57
[3] McEntyre, Marilyn Chandler Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, p. 23

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