toxin or tonic?

The spoken word – what can it accomplish? 

With the spoken word we can call the children in late in the afternoon” “Suppertime – put your bikes away in the garage.”

With the spoken word we can we can explain a problem to the plumber: “Well, when I drain the kitchen sink, water comes up in the bathroom sink.”

With the spoken word we are able to teach a class of history students: “During the war of 1812, British forces burned down the White House in Washington D.C.”

With the spoken word we can communicate information in a pretty straightforward way. Of course there’s a lot happening in the background as we speak – in some ways speaking is hardly a straightforward thing. In the background our minds are composing sentences according to grammatical rules – then breath passes over vocal cords and past the tongue, with sound waves emanating from our mouths. We don’t pay much attention to the mechanics or neurology of the thing – we just speak. Day in and day out we speak to our kids, or to the plumber or to a classroom full of students – often just communicating basic, non-controversial stuff.

This week in our passage from the letter of James, the apostle speaks of our amazing and mundane capacity for speech. And he deals with it under the rubric of ‘the tongue’. Of course the tongue is an essential part of that complicated process of speaking – that’ll be obvious to anyone whose found their tongue partly frozen after a visit to the dentist. With the tongue almost immobilized, it’s difficult to speak.

Now – as we’ve come to expect with James, he just comes straight to the point he’s trying to make – and he doesn’t hesitate in using strong language to make his point. In this case his language is very strong. He says that the tongue is a fire. He says that the tongue is a fire that has actually been set on fire by hell itself. Even more, he says the tongue is a restless evil full of poison. Well, James – tell us what you really think.

We don’t frequently hear such forceful, strong language do we? This strong language of James might in fact set us back on our heels a bit. Is it really that bad? Hearing James’ words we might write them off as hyperbole, as exaggeration – which wouldn’t be completely unfair, since James probably is using hyperbole – to some extent his is a rhetoric of exaggerated speech.

But perhaps James’ strong language isn’t out of all proportion to the problem. You may recall an event from a few years back, when the American radio personality Don Imus made disparaging and racist remarks about the women’s basketball team of Rutgers University. Following those comments, CBS interviewed the American poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Maya Angelou about Imus’ words. In that interview, Maya Angelou spoke of her own pain at hearing his words but went on to say that Imus’ words were evidence of a blight that has taken root in our souls and in our mouths.

Angelou was speaking in part about insidiousness of racist speech in North American culture – but she was also speaking more broadly about the vulgarity of so much of popular culture. Like the Apostle James she uses strong language to describe our speech patterns – a blight that has taken root in our souls and in our mouths. Perhaps the strong language of James, then, isn’t utterly out of place.

Thinking about this subject generally, we all realize that in speaking we do much more than communicate basic, non-controversial stuff. We know that words have power. Indeed, that power is often deployed in very positive ways:

Words can give courage and strength to someone who is dejected or afraid – think of a mother speaking words of encouragement to a child showing up for the first day of school. Her words convey strength.

With words we can speak truth to power, in situations of injustice – think of Martin Luther King Jr. in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. His words had power, and continue to exhibit power almost 50 years later.

With words we don’t simply communicate basic, non-controversial stuff. Words have power – we know it – and that power can be a positive, constructive force in human interaction.

But of course, the Apostle James in his letter, and Maya Angelou in her interview, are not addressing our everyday communication of non-controversial things. And neither are they addressing the constructive impact our words can have in the lives of others. They are speaking about the negative, destructive possibilities of human speech. The tongue as a restless evil full of deadly poison – a blight that has taken root in our mouths.

James is particularly preoccupied with the power of the tongue in relation to its small size. As he puts it, “the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.” In his letter James uses a range of metaphors to describe this:

James says: Look at the bit that you put in the mouth of a horse – just a small piece of metal. But that small piece of metal helps the rider handle a thousand pounds of shifting, running, heaving flesh and bone.

James says: Look at the rudder of a ship. The rudder is so small compared to the vastness of the ship, yet that little rudder will allow the captain to navigate through wind and waves – the rudder helps the captain keep course against immense pressures.

Finally says James; Look at what damage a small spark can cause. Just a small spark in the middle of a dry forest will become a blazing inferno that does untold damage – acre upon acre of black, scarred land.

In each case, the tongue is like something small and insignificant – the words we say can seem so insignificant – a momentary exhaling of breath over vocal cords, past the tongue and lips – a momentary passing of sound waves through the air. But, oh the significance of words. And what damage they can wreak.

James doesn’t only point out that words have tremendous power, positive or negative, in lives and relationships. James also says that the words we speak can shape our identity. As he puts it: “The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body.” Now we generally think that our words are an expression of who we are – we tend to think that who we are inside is shown outwardly in our words. There is some truth to this. But James points out that things also move in the opposite direction – our words can shape our identity and our character. It happens almost imperceptibly – over time. A negative word here, an impatient word there – an angry word in one moment, a bitter word in another moment. These words can reinforce and shape our character in a particular way. If we are not careful, even without noticing it, our identity and character can be shaped by negative and hurtful habits of speech – with our negative and impatient and bitter words, we can be shaped more fully as a negative, impatient, bitter person.

Of course this logic applies in a positive sense as well. As we speak words of encouragement, words of peace, words of love, we can be shaped by those words. It’s not simply that our words of encouragement and peace and love give expression to the kind of person we already are – rather, our words can actually change us. You’ll know what I mean. There may be someone who you’re not really sure you like. But if you choose to speak words of kindness and love to him or her – often your own feeling about the person and your relationship to the person will be shaped by that decision to speak words of kindness and love. In some profound sense, our character follows our words.

Now, at some level we probably don’t need James to tell us any of this. We know what he’s talking about. We know the power of words. We know that our words can deepen and shape our character in a particular way. Nevertheless, perhaps it is still helpful to have this reminder from James. At times our life gets away from us – busyness or boredom prevents us from taking time to reflect on who we are, and on how we speak to others. This morning James gives us a chance to stop and think a little more carefully about how we speak to others.

Let me tell you something interesting that happened this week. I was sitting in my office this past Friday afternoon – and I had gotten precisely this far in the writing of my sermon. There I was at my desk. My window was open, the fresh air was blowing in. And as I was sitting there, considering how to continue with this consideration of James’ letter, I heard a girl’s voice waft in through my window. She said: “Did I really hurt your feelings or are you just saying that?” I turned and saw a girl, probably 9 years old, walking alongside a younger boy who was clearly her brother. On their way home from school – backpacks and lunch containers over their shoulders – the older sisters said: “Did I really hurt your feelings?” The little brother’s head hung down, his chin almost on his chest – his whole body language said it: “Yes, you hurt my feelings.” The 9 year old girl sighed, she put her arm around his shoulder, regret showing on her face, and the two of them continued down the sidewalk out of view and out of earshot.

Our words can get away from us so quickly – and once they are out of our mouths there we cannot ‘take it back’ as we mistakenly thought we could as children. In the face of that nine year old girl, in her arm around the slumped shoulders of her brothers, was a clear recognition of that profound truth – words can’t just be taken back.

The Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt in her discussion of human nature calls this the problem of irreversibility – the problem that as soon as we say a word, it is gone from us – out of our power. What we’ve said is in some profound sense irreversible. Our words take on a life of their own in lives and relationships around us. And particularly when these words are destructive, harmful, negative, there is no taking them back – they are perpetuated in time beyond what we could have imagined. “The tongue is a small member,” James says, “but it boasts of great exploits.”

But what is the point of all of this today. Is James writing all of this just to say that it’s nice to be nice and it’s good to be good? Is he just giving us a nice moral lesson to take into the week? That we must try and control our tongue – that we must use words to encourage and upbuild and show love – rather than to diminish and tear down and be spitefulness? Well, maybe in some small measure that’s what he’s doing.

But the key to this passage is found, I think, in these words of James: “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My sisters and brothers, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?”

A few times I have tasted cool fresh water from a roadside spring. What a wonderful experience. You lower your cupped hand into the water and bring it to your mouth – delightful, refreshing. But can you imagine that if a few seconds later you again drew your cupped hand to your mouth from the spring and the water was suddenly bitter or salty. There would be something inconsistent and startling about the experience.

James isn’t simply moralizing when he tells us to watch our tongues – he’s not simply telling us it’s nice to be nice and it’s good to be good.

Rather, James is suggesting that our ways of speaking must be consistent with who we are – with our deepest identity. And who are we? We are the children of God. Because of Jesus we have been embraced by God. We are united with Jesus through Baptism. Our lives are intricately linked with his. He is our brother, our friend, our king. We are also those upon whom the Holy Spirit has come. We are those who live already in Jesus’ kingdom of joy and peace and goodness.

And James is asking, I think with genuine confusion: If that’s who we are, how is it possible, that petty, or vindictive, or angry, or hurtful words come from our tongues? Can a fresh underground spring – a spring alive and delighting, suddenly give out brackish, bitter water? How is it possible? There is a fundamental inconsistency. James seems genuinely perplexed.

James doesn’t simply want us to be nice, or to be good. James thinks we must be true to our identity. This is who we are – the beloved children of God, citizens of the kingdom established by Jesus. We are united to Jesus. And how does he speak? He speaks truth,

his words build up,

his words are an expression of joyful service,

his words are never bitter or vindictive or spiteful.

Over the past couple of sermons in this series we’ve heard James’ invitation to gaze intently at Jesus – to learn from him what it means to be fully human. But the point is not that we should look at Jesus and take from him a moral lesson. Christianity as mere morality couldn’t be less satisfying. We look at Jesus because in looking at him we discover who we are. He is our friend, our brother, our king. By God’s Spirit we have been drawn so close to him that we find our identity in him.

And so the invitation from James to us – this week and always – is that our patterns of speech might reflect Jesus – his word and way. The invitation – this week and always – is that our tongues might become a tonic, rather than toxin. The invitation – this week and always – is that we look intently at Jesus that our words and our whole lives, including our words, might become an echo of his love. For in the most decisive way – we belong to him.


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