James 3:2-12, Ephesians 4:15
Summer Requests—FBC Laurens
July 7, 2013
Within the Jewish writing on the law known as the Talmud, there is a story about a king who sends two of his servants on a journey. One is asked to go and discover the best thing in the world. The other is asked by the King to go and learn what the worst thing in the world is. According to the story, when the two come back, ironically they have come to the same conclusion. When asked what are both the best and the worst objects in the world, they both answer that it is the human tongue. (From George Mason in the sermon, Tongue Lashing, Wilshire Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas, September 17, 2000.)
I think the New Testament book of James would agree whole-heartedly with the conclusion at which these two servants arrived. James is regarded by many Christians today to be one of the most straightforward and practical books in the New Testament. To this end, James does not disappoint when it comes to the comments made in chapter three related to the power of human speech. In eleven clear and concise verses, James argues that few things in this world are more powerful than our words. Furthermore, James challenges both the original readers of these statements as well as believers today to realize that the power unleashed by human speech can either build up or it can destroy. Our words really do have the ability to be a blessing or a curse in the world of which we are apart.
I think James’ statements here are very important for us to listen to and reflect on. Further I think that they are particularly valuable ideas for us to hear as both citizens of the kingdom of God and as citizens of this country. My concern is that we live in a time both in the church and in the American culture where we are careless with our words. Even when what we say is right or true, often times our words these days are fueled more by hatred than love, spoken out of desire to be right rather than humble and offered in hopes of breaking others down rather than building them up.
But, I would suggest to all of us that practicing good citizenship—in both the kingdom of God and in our country—requires that we are attentive at all times to the power of our words and to the tenor and tone of our speech. Our goal should always be that our words are a positive rather than negative force in our world. To this end, let me encourage us this morning to make a couple of commitments to God, to ourselves and to each other when it comes to our attempts to allow our words to play a productive and constructive role in our lives.
First, as people of faith, let us commitment ourselves to allowing our attempts to speak the truth to always be carried out in love. I think this is one of the more critical principles for us to live by as people of faith today. I know without a doubt that as believers and as citizens, we desire to communicate clearly and forthrightly what we believe to be God’s truths for our lives and for the world. And, this is a good thing for us to do. Yet, as we do this, we must always be equally committed to doing so in a manner and with words that are loving.
Too often, we want to “tell it like it is” or to “step on some toes” to use two modern phrases. But, in hindsight, if we have ever been on the receiving end of someone else and their attempts to “tell us the way that it should be” or “to step on our toes” then we understand fully how poorly such ways of communicating often work. Rather than encouraging us to change our ways or to move in a different direction, this type of language usually only further entrenches us in the way that we already feel or fuels the flames of division. And this is true, let me remind us, whether our mode of communication is the spoken word or the written word in all forms—which includes, our words shared via email and social media such as Facebook or twitter. All of our words, all of words should be spoken in love.
This morning, our scripture reading included not only James’ words in chapter 3 but also one verse from Ephesians 4 where Paul makes his famous plea that we are to speak the truth in love. What we often loose when this verse is cited is the context that surrounds Paul’s words. Paul was challenging the believers in Ephesus to choose the true gospel in the midst of false ideas and teachers who sought to sway them in the wrong direction. It was a critical time for the early church in the midst of competing voices as to what was really the true gospel. Yet, as Paul encouraged the Ephesians to stand for and to speak the truth, he cautioned them to communicate it in a loving way. Again, speak the truth, but do it in a way that invites people to be open to what we have to say. Don’t speak the truth in a condescending, hateful or arrogant way that only drives people away. While it might help us to feel better such a tactic will rarely change others or invite them to respond to us or our words in a positive way.
Second as people of faith, let us commit ourselves to not allow our fear of saying the wrong thing to keep us from saying anything at all. What is striking about the words of this third chapters is that in the midst of James’ desire to caution us of the potential danger of our words, there remains another idea that is also embedded and running alongside James’ caution and that is that just as our words have the ability to do great harm, our words also have the ability to do great good. For every opportunity to curse others there is a chance to bless others. For every occasion in which we are attempted to verbalize hatred there is the opportunity to offer grace. In every moment when we are tempted to tear others down there is also the ability to build others up. In turn, just as we need to be careful to avoid every temptation to speak poorly, we also need to be open to every chance to speak well and to make a profound difference in the lives of others merely through our words. Rather than remaining quite, biting our tongue or leaving things left unsaid, when the opportunity comes for us to make our world a better place through our words we should seize the moment.
Thinking about this reminds me of the story of a friend of mine and his travels in Europe while in college. While studying in Switzerland, he and some friends decided to go to Rome for the weekend. None of them had ever been to Rome before and no one in the group spoke Italian. When they arrived, one thing that immediately caught their attention were the gypsies in the train station who were fluent in English and who were trying their hardest to catch the travelers attention with their trinkets for sale and suggests of things to do while in Rome.
Once the group, left the train station they had a wonderful day in Rome and saw all of the sites that they had hoped to visit. Late that night they arrived back at the same train station to travel overnight back to Switzerland. When they arrived in the station, however, they learned that their train had been canceled and that there were few possibilities for alternate trains to take them back North. Further, what made things double difficult was the fact that they did not speak Italian and no one remaining in the station spoke English. At that moment, they saw one of the gypsies from that morning still in the station and the realized he was coming their way. To their utter shock, he had overheard the conversation and he came to help. Within ten minutes, speaking impeccable English, he came to their aide and helped them find a way home. The same language that he had used earlier for the purpose of harm, had become words that he now used as words for positive and good. Without a doubt, our words have this same two fold possibility
I have always been struck by the story about St. Francis of Assisi and the woman who wanted to be forgiven for being a gossip. As they talked about her actions, St. Francis challenged her to do something. He told her to go and place a feather on the doorstep of every person in town that she had wronged with her words. When she completed the task, she went back to St. Francis and asked what she should do next. Francis replied by encouraging her to go back and recollect all of the feathers that she had distributed. It didn’t take long for her to realize that this was an impossible task. The wind had blown the feathers all over the community. When she expressed to St Francis her frustration and explained the impossibility of this task, the wise Saint helped her to understand that the same was true of the gossip that she had spread. Certainly God could and would forgive her, but, that did not change the fact that the gossip she had spread and the words she had spoken to never be gathered back up and contained. Once released into the world, they could never be recalled.
This morning, let us never forget that once our words leave our mouth, they can never return. This is a great word of caution if we choose to speak evil. But, at the same time, this is a word of great hope if our desire is to use our words for good in order to change the world. Amen.