A sermon delivered by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., on September 16, 2012.
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Last Sunday was a big day for us here at First Baptist Church. It was ONE Sunday, that day when we all get together for one, wonderful worship service, and also the beginning of a year-long, every-member mission trip called KOH2RVA. As I say, it was a big day, but it was so big I may need to remind you that we are still working our way through the Book of James in a sermon series called “Doing the Word.” I began by telling you how I thought James, the brother of Jesus, was writing to the members of the Jerusalem church who had been scattered by persecution, who had ended up in small towns throughout the region of Judea and Samaria. I think these scattered believers began to gather for worship in those places, began to form their own small congregations, and as they did James wrote to them, giving them advice on how to get it right in the church, and warning them about how easily things can go wrong.
In the first sermon I talked about how verbs can become nouns, how words like faith, hope, and love can become empty and meaningless. For that reason, James says, “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” You turn a noun back into a verb by doing something. In the second sermon I talked about not showing favoritism to people with money and power but instead treating all of God’s children equally, maybe even extravagantly, and remembering that everybody is a child of God. Today we turn to James, chapter 3, for a word about words, and about how careful we need to be with them. Listen for the word of the Lord from 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. 2For 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. 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4Or 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. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6And 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. 7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh (NRSV).
I can still remember the time I said the opening prayer at a football game. It wasn’t a big game: just our local college in North Carolina against somebody else’s. Someone had asked me to offer the opening prayer and in a moment of weakness I had said yes, but as I made my way to the stadium I wondered: what do you pray for at a football game? That the two teams won’t kill each other? I walked down the sidelines, past the cheerleaders practicing their high kicks and cartwheels, around the concession stand where people were buying hot dogs, popcorn, and pretzels, and finally up the rickety stairs to the press box where I was supposed to pray. It was a perfect fall day, and I was thinking maybe I could thank God for that—for the sights and sounds and smells of a football game in late September. It was still fifteen minutes before game time, plenty of time to gather my thoughts, but when I stepped through the door someone said, “He’s here!” and the announcer said, “Ladies and gentlemen, please stand for the invocation,” and then shoved the microphone into my hand.
I could have used a few more minutes.
“Gracious God,” I said, “thank you for this perfect fall day, for the smell of freshly popped popcorn, for the sight of these…cheerleaders…” And then I forgot what I was going to say next. I knew I was working my way through the five senses—sight, sound, smell, taste, touch—but couldn’t remember which one came next. Was it “the feel of autumn in the air”? “The taste of a stadium hot dog”? I finally went in another direction altogether but it was too late. The pause had been awkward and it had come at an awkward point in the prayer. When I left the press box a friend of mine—a trustee at the college—was waiting for me with a big grin on his face. “Jim,” he said, “I don’t mean to criticize, but you said, ‘Lord, thank you for the sight of these cheerleaders,’ and then you just stopped.” “Well,” I said, trying to make light of it, “cheerleaders often have that effect on me.” But he knew and I knew that I hadn’t planned it that way. I had been asked to pray at the season opener, and I had blown it.
So, when I open my Bible to the book of James and I find him saying, “All of us make many mistakes,” it’s a comfort. And when he goes on to say, “Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect,” I know he’s not talking about me. Nobody gets it right every time. If they did, there wouldn’t be any of those blooper reels at the end of the movies. “We all make mistakes,” James says, and for that reason he insists that not many of us should become teachers (or preachers, for that matter, and especially radio talk show hosts), because the work those people do is done with the tongue, and the tongue—says James—is a powerful and often dangerous thing.
He starts by illustrating the power of the tongue. Look at a horse, he says. A big animal. Strong and spirited. But a little bit of pressure on a piece of metal in his mouth can control that big animal, can make him go right or left, can bring him from a full gallop to a dead stop. Or look at a ship, he says. Huge. Cumbersome. Driven through the water only by strong winds. And yet a tiny rudder, turned this way or that, can control the direction of that ship, can make the difference between docking in England or Africa. So it is with the tongue, James says. It’s a little thing, but it has great power. It can change your life.
For example: you might be sitting at the edge of a moonlit pond, on a beautiful night, with a pretty girl sitting there beside you. You might reach into your pocket with a trembling hand and take out a small, velvet box. And then, when the time seemed just right, you might look into that girl’s eyes—liquid with moonlight—and use your tongue to say, “Will you marry me?” And if everything goes according to script she might look at the ring you hold out to her in that open box, gasp, reach for it, put it on her finger, hold it up to the light, squeal, throw her arms around your neck, and say, “Yes! Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES!” And in that simple exchange life would take a sudden turn. The planets of your personal solar system would tear loose from their old orbits, take up new alignments. Some would be lost forever. Others would wobble into place.
This is the power of the tongue, James would say, and this is the reason you have to be so careful with it, because, while it can be used to create something wonderful and new like a marriage, it can also be used to destroy. “The tongue is a fire,” he says. Fire can warm you when you are cold. It can heat water for tea on a winter evening. It can make steam that drives turbines and produces electricity. When it is under control there is little in the world more useful or pleasant than this particular element. But James knows that a careless spark can set the woods on fire, and before anyone has time to respond that fire can rage out of control, burning timber, taking lives, destroying homes. Acres can be ruined in hours. Hundreds of square miles in a matter of days. Fire can lay waste to a landscape, leaving nothing behind but the charred and smoking remains of what was formerly green and growing.
“The tongue is like that,” James warns. “A carelessly spoken word or phrase can incinerate a life, can leave a pile of ashes where a person used to be.” But you probably don’t need James to tell you that. You probably could have written that yourself. Because at some time or another someone has probably said something to you that reduced you to a pile of ashes. I remember sitting in the stands at a Tee-ball game years ago, when my daughter Catherine was on the team, and watching a father tear into his son because the boy had bobbled the ball at third base and missed tagging someone out. The father was sitting just a few feet away from me, and he leaped to his feet, yelling at the boy until his face turned red and I thought he was going to have a heart attack. He called him “Stupid!” and “Idiot!” and said, “How could you do a thing like that?” while the boy stood there, flinching under his father’s words as if they had been blows. I didn’t know what to do. I sat there thinking, “This game will be over in an hour but those words will echo inside that boy’s head forever.” When he came up to bat a little later he knocked the ball way into the outfield, and ran all the way around to third base—a triple!—but his father looked away as if a triple were the least he could do. I was sitting right there and I said, “Hey, that was a great hit. I’m not even rooting for your team, but that was a great hit!” And he looked down and grinned.
But do you think a stranger’s praise could erase the pain of his father’s words? Not likely. Maybe you know just how he felt. Maybe even now, years later, you can remember the way you were hurt by someone’s words, and how even though you have tried to forgive you have never been able to forget. And here’s the worst part of it all: there’s a good chance that someone out there is remembering something you said, something that hurt them in a way they have never been able to forget. And you might not even know what it was. It may have been a small thing, dropped in casual conversation, surely never intended to hurt anyone, and yet, like a match dropped in the woods, it did. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” James says, “And the tongue is a fire…. Every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed,” James continues, “but no one can tame the tongue.”
Does that mean we shouldn’t try? Of course not. Sometimes people say, “Well, you’ll never have to guess where you stand with me,” which seems to mean they can say whatever they please in the name of honesty, even if it cuts the other person to the quick. Others laugh about not having that little switch between the brain and the tongue that’s supposed to keep them from saying stupid and hurtful things. “Well, go out and get one!” I say. The writer of Ephesians admonishes us to “speak the truth in love” and that one little qualifier makes all the difference. Do we say what we say in love, or in something else altogether? I’ve watched people speak the truth when you could tell they enjoyed the pain it was causing. When I watch sitcoms on television it seems as if the point is to say something clever or cutting, and the sharper the barb the better it is. But in the family it shouldn’t be like that, should it? And in the church family it shouldn’t be like that. We should say things that build others up, not break them down. We should bless, and not curse, our brothers and sisters.
What James can’t believe is that some people use the same mouth for both: blessing and cursing. He says, “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree yield olives, or a grapevine figs? How is it then that the same mouth can be capable of blessing and cursing?” And that’s a good question. One of the preachers in my Tuesday morning group confessed that she was going to see a lady in her church and on the way someone pulled out right in front of her, almost causing an accident. “You wouldn’t have wanted to hear what came out of my mouth,” she said. But then, as soon as she got out of the car at this lady’s house, it was all, “Hey, Miss Judith! How are you today? Don’t you look pretty!” “From the same mouth!” she said, pointing, disgusted with herself. James says it ought not be so, but more often than we would like to admit it is, isn’t it? How do we get over that? How can we do better?
Well, first, we can recognize how powerful words really are. “Sticks and stones may break my bones,” we say, “but words will never hurt me.” And yet, that doesn’t make it true. Words can kill. They can kill the spirit if not the body. But they can also heal, and that’s the amazing thing about them. You can use your words in a way that lifts people up rather than brings them down. All James is asking for, really, is consistency. If you’re going to use your mouth to bless God, then use it to bless others, and use it the same way all the time. Got that? “Yes,” you say. “I’ve got that. When I leave here today I will use my mouth only to bless, never to curse.” And yet you are bound to break that promise, maybe before you get to the parking lot. “We all make many mistakes,” James says, and then reminds us that while human beings have been able to time every kind of creature “No one has ever been able to tame the tongue.” Which means that even in church someone may hurt you with their words from time to time. And you, what will you do? Will you say, “Well, I never!” and turn and walk away in a huff? Or will you remember that we all make many mistakes, and that no one has ever been able to tame the tongue, so that, when that person comes to you with an apology the following Sunday, you will say, “You know, I’ve done the same sort of thing myself, and I’ll probably do it again, and if I don’t forgive you now you won’t be able to forgive then, so…yes. I forgive you.”
In that moment your words will bless and heal.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.